Pope starts Myanmar trip in shadow of Rohingya crisis

Pope starts Myanmar trip in shadow of Rohingya crisis

Pope Francis landed in Yangon on Monday, the start of a delicate visit for the leader of the Roman Catholic church to majority-Buddhist Myanmar, which the  US has accused of conducting "ethnic cleansing" against its Muslim Rohingya people.

The pope will also visit Bangladesh, where more than 6,20,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has dubbed "crimes against humanity".

The Myanmar Army has denied the accusations of murder, rape, torture and forcible displacement.

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."

Ethnic minorities 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 in the heart of the city.

Only about 700,000 of Myanmar's 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands of them travelled 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 southern and western states 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 mobilised in the country's main city but there were no signs of any protests.

The trip is so delicate that some papal advisers have warned him against even saying the word "Rohingya", lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the Buddhist-majority country's military and government against minority Christians.

Francis is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, the 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, Senior General 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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