Pope due to visit Myanmar, Bangladesh, before Christmas: Source

Pope Francis (centre) arriving for his weekly audience at the Vatican.
Pope Francis (centre) arriving for his weekly audience at the Vatican.PHOTO: AFP

VATICAN CITY (REUTERS) - Pope Francis will almost certainly visit Myanmar and Bangladesh, two countries caught up in a crisis over the Rohingya Muslim minority, before the end of the year, a senior Vatican source said on Wednesday (Aug 23).

The trip, which would be the first time any pope has visited Myanmar, is due to be officially announced before the end of August, added the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The trip is likely to take place between the end of November and the start of December but definitely before Christmas, the source added. The Vatican has so far officially said only that a trip to both countries is "under study".

A Vatican team is visiting both countries to sort out details and report back to the pope, who will make the final decision.

Myanmar is facing international scrutiny over atrocities against its Rohingya community. In February, Francis issued a stinging criticism of their treatment, saying they had been tortured and killed simply because they wanted to live their culture and Muslim faith.

The recent histories of Myanmar and Bangladesh have been linked by the Rohingya crisis.

Around 1.1 million Rohingya live in Myanmar's Rakhine state, but are denied citizenship and face severe travel restrictions. Many Buddhists across Myanmar regard them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

More than 87,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since Rohingya insurgents killed nine police last year. That prompted a military crackdown, drawing allegations of rape, killings and arson by the security forces.

The Vatican, which is a sovereign state, and Myanmar established full diplomatic relations in May when its de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited the Vatican. Suu Kyi assumed power in 2016 following a landslide election win after Myanmar's former military leaders initiated a political transition. She is also the country's foreign minister.

There are about 700,000 Roman Catholics in Myanmar according to the country's cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, out of a population of about 51.4 million, the majority of whom are Buddhist.

Pope John Paul visited Bangladesh, which is overwhelmingly Muslim and where Catholics make up only a tiny minority, in 1986.