Pope Francis told 'no religious discrimination' in Burma despite shadow of Rohingya crisis

The pontiff and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing talk for 15 minutes

Philip Pullella
Rangoon, Burma
,Yimou Lee
Tuesday 28 November 2017 02:12
Pope Francis is welcomed to Burma
Pope Francis is welcomed to Burma

Burma's military chief is said to have told Pope Francis that there is "no religious discrimination" in the country, after they met at the start of a delicate visit for the pontiff to a majority-Buddhist country that the United States has accused of “ethnic cleansing” against its Muslim Rohingya people.

The leader of the Roman Catholic church will also visit Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has alleged are “crimes against humanity”.

The army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, told the pope that “there's no religious discrimination in Myanmar [Burma] and there's the freedom of religion,” according to a statement on his Facebook page. “Every soldier's goal is to build a stable and peaceful country,” the military leader was paraphrased as saying in the statement.

Burma's army has denied accusations of murder, rape, torture and forced displacement that have been made against it.

The pope's met with Min Aung Hlaing in St. Mary's Cathedral in the heart of the Southeast Asian nation's largest city.

“They discussed the great responsibility of authorities of the country in this time of transition,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said after the 15 minutes of talks, which were followed by an exchange of gifts.

Pope Francis presented the general with a commemorative medal of his visit, and Min Aung Hlaing gave the pope a harp in the shape of a boat and an ornate rice bowl, Mr Burke said.

Members of ethnic minority groups in traditional dress welcomed Pope Francis at the airport, and children presented him with flowers as he stepped off his plane.

He waved through an open window at dozens of children waving Vatican and Myanmar flags and wearing T-shirts with the motto of the trip — “love and peace” — as he set off in a car.

Only about 700,000 of Burma's 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands of them travelled by train and bus to Rangoon, and they joined crowds at several roadside points along the way from the airport to catch a glimpse of the pope.

More than 150,000 people have registered for a mass that Pope Francis will say in the city on Wednesday, according to Catholic Burma Church spokesman Mariano Soe Naing.

“We come here to see the Holy Father. It happens once in hundreds of years,” said Win Min Set, a community leader who brought a group of 1,800 Catholics from the south and west of the country.

“He is very knowledgeable when it comes to political affairs. He will handle the issue smartly,” he said, referring to the sensitivity of the pope's discussions about the Rohingya.

Drone footage shows thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar

Large numbers of riot police were mobilised in Rangoon but there were no signs of any protests.

The trip is so delicate that some papal advisers have warned Pope Francis 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's southern tip began at the end of August, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and Burma's 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”.

Burma'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.

Burma does not recognise 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.

Many people in Burma instead refer to members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine state as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Pope Francis is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, on the second leg of his trip.

The most tense moments of his Burma visit were expected to be the private meeting with the army chief and, separately, with civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday.

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 Ms Suu Kyi.

Ms Suu Kyi's reputation as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been tarnished because she has expressed doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failed to condemn the military.

The pope has already used the word Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year.

Asked if he would say it in Burma, Mr Burke said Pope Francis was taking the advice he had been given seriously, but added: “We will find out together during the trip ... it is not a forbidden word”.

A hardline 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.

“I hope he doesn't touch on sensitive issues that Myanmar people couldn't accept,” said Tawparka, a spokesman for the group, who goes by a single name. “There's no problem if he talks about Islam, but it's unacceptable if he speaks about Rohingya and extreme terrorists.”


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