International Desk – Pope Francis has arrived in Yangon Monday on the first papal visit to Myanmar, a South East Asian country accused of systematic cleansing of a minority ethnic group.
Francis’ six-day trip brought him to the heart of one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims crossed into Bangladesh fleeing violence in Myanmar in the last three months.
The focus of the Papal visit will be on whether he uses the term “Rohingya” to describe the country’s Muslim minority as Myanmar officials strongly reject the term, raising concerns it could spark some potential violence if he does.
He is scheduled to meet Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the head of the country’s military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
On conclusion of the visit on November 30, the Pope will then move to Bangladesh.
He is scheduled to meet a small group of Rohingya refugees there in a symbolic gesture. The 80-year-old pontiff has become known for his moderate views and willingness to denounce global injustice.
The Pope used the term “our Rohingya brothers and sisters” while denouncing the persecution then, but Myanmar’s sole Catholic cardinal has asked him to avoid using it on the trip, fearing inflaming local insensitivities could lead to violence in the Buddhist-majority nation, according to a BBC report.
Myanmar officials do not use the term, instead labelling them “Bengalis”, and say they migrated illegally from Bangladesh so should not be listed as one of the country’s ethnic groups.
They say the military crackdown in Rakhine is to root out violent insurgents there, but the UN has described the violence as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” – a sentiment echoed by international critics.
Last week Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a deal to return hundreds of thousands who have fled across the border, but aid agencies have raised concerns about any forcible return unless their safety can be guaranteed.
More than 3,000 Rohingya Muslims crossed the border last week despite the fact that the two neighbours signed the repatriation deal, according to UN agency for migration.
Papal aides say he will use the six-day trip to encourage dialogue and reconciliation after last week’s tentative agreement.
The visit was organised before the crisis, when the Pope met the country’s de facto leader Suu Kyi at the Vatican in May. The former Nobel Peace Prize laureate has faced fierce criticism for her silence on the persecution of the Rohingya.
A large proportion of the 660,000 strong Catholic minority of Myanmar are expected to see him hold mass in Yangon.
He will then become the first Catholic leader to visit Bangladesh since 1986.