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Pope Francis met leaders of several faiths in majority-Buddhist Myanmar on Tuesday, stressing the importance of “unity in diversity” but making no mention of the Muslim Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh after a military crackdown.
The pope held private talks with Myanmar’s military chief in Yangon, the first day of a visit fraught with tension after the United States accused the Southeast Asian nation of “ethnic cleansing” against its Muslim Rohingya people.
Sharing a stage with Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyidaw, he did not address the Rohingya crisis head-on but instead tip-toed around the unfolding humanitarian emergency.
Peace can only be achieved through “justice and a respect for human rights”, he said in a broadly-framed speech that also called for “respect for each ethnic group and its identity”.
The word “Rohingya”, an incendiary term in a mainly Buddhist country where the Muslim minority are denied citizenship and branded illegal “Bengali” immigrants, was entirely absent from his speech.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church will also travel to Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has dubbed “crimes against humanity.”
Sharing a stage with Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyidaw, he did not address the Rohingya crisis head-on but instead tip-toed around the unfolding humanitarian emergency
Myanmar’s army has denied accusations of murder, rape, torture and forced displacement that have been made against it.
“Unity is always a product of diversity,” Francis told leaders of the Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Christian faiths in Yangon, according to Vatican officials who gave a briefing on the 40-minute meeting.
“Everyone has their values, their riches as well as their differences, as each religion has its riches, its traditions, its riches to share. And this can only happen if we live in peace, and peace is constructed in a chorus of differences.”
Aye Lwin, a prominent Muslim leader who was at the meeting, told that he had asked the pope to appeal to Myanmar’s political leaders “to rescue the religion that we cherish, which could be hijacked by a hidden agenda.”
Rights groups had urged Pope to tackle Myanmar about its treatment of the minority during his four-day visit, but the local Catholic Church had cautioned him against straying into the Rohingya issue.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been ostracised by a global rights community that once adored her but is now outraged at her tepid response to the plight of the Rohingya.
She spoke of the challenges her country faces as it creeps out of the shadow of five decades of military rule, but also did not reference the Rohingya.
The government aimed to build the nation by “protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all”, she said in a short speech, that gave a nod to global concern over the “situation in the Rakhine.”
Tension Over The Word ‘Rohingya’
Francis’ trip is so delicate that some advisers have warned him against even saying the word “Rohingya,” lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the country’s military and government against minority Christians.
The Rohingya exodus from Rakhine state to Bangladesh began after Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week called the military operation “ethnic cleansing” and threatened targeted sanctions for “horrendous atrocities.”
Myanmar’s government has denied most of the accusations made against it, and the army says its own investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens nor as members of a distinct ethnic group with their own identity, and it even rejects the term “Rohingya” and its use.
Muslim leader who was at the meeting, told that he had asked the pope to appeal to Myanmar’s political leaders “to rescue the religion that we cherish, which could be hijacked by a hidden agenda
Many people in Myanmar instead refer to members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine state as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Francis is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on the second leg of his trip.
Vatican sources say some in the Holy See believe the trip was decided too hastily after full diplomatic ties were established in May during a visit by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The pope has already used the word Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year.
A hard-line group of Buddhist monks, previously known as Ma Ba Tha, said it welcomed the pope’s visit but warned, without elaborating, of “a response” if he spoke openly about the Rohingya.
The pope’s peace mission is studded with pitfalls in Myanmar, where a monk-led Buddhist nationalist movement has fostered widespread loathing for the Rohingya.
In recognition of those tensions his public speech was “very carefully worded”, Myanmar-based political analyst Richard Horsey told, speculating “he is likely to have been more forthright in private meetings with Myanmar’s leaders.”
But the pontiff’s words were of little comfort to Rohingya stuck in dire conditions in Bangladesh.
“We are very much disappointed that he did not mention the Rohingya crisis,” said Rohingya activist Mohammad Zubair from Kutupalong refugee camp, speaking of a religious leader who previously “even held prayers for the Rohingya”.
The Pope, The Lady And A General
Late on Monday the 80-year-old pontiff received a “courtesy visit” from Myanmar’s powerful army chief — whose troops, according to the UN and US, have waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Rakhine.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has firmly denied allegations of widespread brutality by his forces, despite the flight of hundreds of thousands who have recounted widespread cases of rape, murder and arson.
His office said the general told the pope there was “no discrimination” in Myanmar, and he praised his military for maintaining “the peace and stability of the country”.
Suu Kyi finally came to power after elections in 2015 but has fallen from grace internationally for not doing more to stand up to the army in defence of the Rohingya —whose name she will not publicly utter.
hard-line group of Buddhist monks, previously known as Ma Ba Tha, said it welcomed the pope’s visit but warned, without elaborating, of “a response” if he spoke openly about the Rohingya
Rights groups have clamoured for Suu Kyi to be stripped of her peace prize. Oxford, the English city she once called home, on Monday removed her Freedom of the City award for “inaction” in the face of oppression of the Rohingya.
Just days before the Pope visit, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a deal to start repatriating Rohingya refugees within two months.
But details of the agreement — including the use of temporary shelters for returnees, many of whose homes have been burned to the ground — raise questions for Rohingya fearful of returning without guarantees of basic rights.
So far, the pontiff has received a warm welcome in Myanmar, whose Catholic community numbers just over one percent of the country’s 51 million people.
But some 200,000 Catholics are pouring into the commercial capital Yangon from all corners of the country ahead of a huge, open-air mass in Yangon on Wednesday morning.
Francis will travel on to Bangladesh on Thursday.■