Pope visits Myanmar in shadow of Rohingya crisis

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SHAFAQNA – Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar on Monday on a delicate visit for the leader of the Roman Catholic church to a majority-Buddhist country that the United States has accused of “ethnic cleansing” against its Muslim Rohingya people.

The pope will also visit Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has dubbed “crimes against humanity”.

After leaving Rome, the pope told reporters on his plane: “They say it’s too hot (in Myanmar). I‘m sorry, but let’s hope it will at least be fruitful.”

The pope was set to hold a private meeting with Myanmar army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, at 6 p.m. (1130 GMT) in St. Mary’s Cathedral in the heart of the largest city of Yangon, where he arrived earlier, a Vatican spokesman said.

Members of ethnic minority groups in traditional dress welcomed Francis at Yangon 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 T-shirts with the motto of the trip – “love and peace” – as he set off in a light blue Toyota car for St. Mary’s Cathedral.

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

“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.

Large numbers of riot police were mobilized in Yangon but there were no signs of any protests.

U.S. 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.

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 Myanmar visit are likely to be private meetings with the army chief, Min Aung Hlaing and, separately, civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

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

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