Pope Francis will push for peace during his visit to Myanmar, a church official said Thursday, a trip that plunges the pontiff into the centre of a simmering religious conflict which has sparked an exodus of Muslim Rohingya.
Myanmar’s western Rakhine state has been torn apart by communal violence, sending more than 520,000 Rohingya racing over to neighbouring Bangladesh since late August.
The leader of the world’s Catholics will visit both nations on a highly charged trip in late November — although there are currently no plans to visit strife-torn Rakhine or the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“We don’t know yet what will be in his speech… but he is coming for the sake of the country and he will be talking about peace,” Father Mariano Soe Naing, a spokesman for the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Myanmar, told AFP.
“There won’t be any interfaith meetings (in Myanmar) because of the lack of time,” he added.
He will talk with de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize laureate who has sparked international dismay by her perceived lack of sympathy towards the Rohingya.
Myanmar’s army is accused of using a crackdown on militants to violently expel its population of the Muslim minority — a persecuted group the Pope has previously called “brothers and sisters”.
But any sympathy for the Rohingya could provoke a backlash from Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority public, who loathe the minority and have railed against global support for the group.
Some 200,000 people are expected to attend a mass led by Francis in Kyaikkasan Grounds, a stadium in Yangon, Father Mariano added.
After Myanmar the Pope will head to Bangladesh which has had to absorb more than half a million Rohingya refugees, putting a significant strain on the two countries’ ties.
‘Good and peaceful people’
Myanmar and the Vatican only established full diplomatic relations in May, shortly after Suu Kyi met Pope Francis during a European tour.
That visit was overshadowed by her country’s treatment of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and have previously been displaced in huge numbers by communal violence and army campaigns.
Only weeks before the meeting Francis described the Muslim minority as “brothers and sisters” who were being tortured and killed for their faith.
He added they were “good and peaceful people who have suffered for years”.
That puts Francis at odds with many inside Myanmar, where authorities have denied committing atrocities and refuse to use the term Rohingya, instead labelling them “Bengalis”.
Buddhist nationalist hardliners have previously vowed to protest any papal visit because of his support for the Muslim group.
Suu Kyi is desperate to stop religious bloodshed from erupting in other parts of the diverse country. Earlier this week her party held an interfaith rally.
But her calls for unity have been met with outrage and charges of hypocrisy from detractors who accuse her glossing over the Rohingya’s suffering.
Suu Kyi’s spokesman Zaw Htay told AFP that she would address the Rakhine crisis in a televised speech Thursday evening.