Pope Francis wraps up contentious Myanmar visit


YANGON — Pope Francis on Thursday wrapped up a visit to Myanmar defined internationally by his decision not to address the Rohingya crisis in public, and flies to Bangladesh, where huge numbers of refugees from the Muslim minority languish in refugee camps.

Christians make up less than 0.5 percent of mainly Muslim Bangladesh, but have in recent years come under attack from Islamist radicals.

Just days before Francis’ arrival, a Catholic priest disappeared in a village in northern Bangladesh.

In Myanmar the pontiff walked a diplomatic tightrope, staying silent on allegations that the army is waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

Myanmar’s government denies the Rohingya are an ethnic group, insisting they are “Bengali” immigrants who are not entitled to full citizenship.

But the Vatican rejected suggestions the decision not to confront the issue publically represented a failure of moral leadership.

A spokesman late Wednesday said the Pope’s presence alone drew attention to Myanmar’s myriad troubles and his “moral authority” remained undimmed.

Francis had previously expressed concern over the Rohingya’s persecution.

But he was urged not to mention their name in Myanmar to avoid provoking hardline Buddhists, who were quick to claim the Pope’s avoidance of the term ‘Rohingya’ as a victory.

The pontiff has been warmly embraced by Myanmar’s minority of Catholics — who make up just over one percent of the population.

On Thursday, Francis led a mass at a cathedral in downtown Yangon, which was also broadcast on a big screen in the church’s basketball court where throngs of faithful craned for a view of their religious leader.

“This is a blessing for us to see the Pope. We are a very small community but he came for us,” Tony Ravi, among those in the crowd, told AFP.

In his homily the pope urged young people to defend “human rights” and “justice” — the central theme of his public addresses throughout his landmark visit.

All eyes will now be fixed on the pontiff as he heads to Bangladesh, a country struggling to provide for the more than 620,000 Rohingya who have crushed into its refugee camps after fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

He will arrive in Dhaka on Thursday afternoon.

The Catholic priest who disappeared on Monday in the same village as suspected Islamist extremists hacked a Catholic grocer to death last year.

Walter William Rosario, 40, had been organising for some 300 Catholics to travel to Dhaka for the pope’s mass.

Since 2015 at least three Christians, including two converts from Islam, have been hacked to death in attacks blamed on the militant Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh.

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Support our independent journalism and get exclusive behind-the-scenes content and analysis

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters.

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar