Bishop John Hsane Hgyi, Bishop Felix Lian Ken Thang, Bishop John Saw Yaw Han and Monsignor Dario Pavisa from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar, attend a press conference about Pope Francis' visit to Myanmar, in Yangon on Aug. 28. (Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/AFP)
Myint Swe, a 74-year-old Buddhist, is looking forward to Pope Francis' visit to Myanmar which he believes will help improve interfaith harmony and heal the wounds of the Rakhine crisis.
Myint Swe, president of Religions for Peace-interfaith group based in Yangon, said the pontiff will experience a hospitable welcome from local Buddhists who are anticipating his Nov. 27–30 visit.
"We couldn't have imagined five years ago that the pope would visit Myanmar but now the dream is true not only for Catholics but also for the blessing and benefit for the majority Buddhists," Myint Swe told ucanews.com.
"The message what we want to convey [during the pope's visit] is how people among religions collaborate together towards peace and harmony," said Myint Swe who will join a public Mass on Nov. 29.
Besides prayers, as a spiritual preparation for the papal visit, the Catholic Church has been arranging logistical requirements for the pilgrims in collaboration with other faiths.
Buddhist monasteries, Protestant and Catholic churches in Yangon will provide places of shelter for thousands of Catholics across the country.
A public Mass by the pope at Kyaikkasan grounds in Yangon on Nov. 29 is expected to draw more than 150,000 Catholics and people from other faiths.
Father Joseph Mg Win, an organizing committee member for the pope's visit, said various religious leaders are ready to provide help.
"We have close relationships with different religions in Myanmar so they are eager to contribute in the preparations for the pope's visit," Father Mg Win told ucanews.com. As an example, the Yangon Division Sangha (Buddhist community) has offered their halls to be used as shelter for pilgrims.
Father Mg Win also said many Buddhists have informed him that they will join the pope's public Mass on Nov. 29.
People hold lit candles and portraits of Myanmar's State Counsellor and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the Interreligious Gathering of Prayer for Peace ceremony in Yangon on Oct. 10. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Interfaith peace prayer rally
Just a month before the pope arrives in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party held an interfaith peace prayer rally across the country.
Catholic priests, nuns, brothers and laypeople were among the 30,000 participants from different religions who took part in the unprecedented event in Yangon on Oct. 10.
Zaw Min Latt, a Muslim resident in Yangon involved in interfaith activities, said it was good to pray together for peace but it needs to be more than a perceived PR stunt.
"The government must take into action for those who spread hate speech, to allow freedom of religion without discrimination and to have the rule of law prevail," Zaw Min Latt told ucanews.com.
He said Pope Francis's visit would give hope that the freedom of religion and human rights situation in Myanmar for minorities would improve.
Against expectations, he said discrimination and hatred against minority Muslims worsened under the civilian-led government.
"The government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, their rights and to ensure the rule of law is upheld so there may be no discrimination or violence towards any race or religion," Zaw Min Latt said.
But the news of the pope's visit has already drawn ire from hard-line Buddhist groups who have fanned sectarian violence and protest, especially against the Rohingya and other Muslims over the past five years.
Nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment has further increased following Rohingya militants attack on government posts on Aug. 25, triggering the Myanmar's military crackdown in a conflict-torn northern Rakhine State. The U.N. has described the military's action as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
Over the last two months, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh.
Many hard-line Buddhists have voiced their opposition to the pope's visit. "Why will the pope visit Myanmar? "Don't interfere politics as you are religious leader" and "There is no Rohingya so why he will use the term," are a few examples of things said online.
In a perceived disrespectful act, Aye Ne Win, the grandson of the late dictator Ne Win, dressed up as a pope for a Halloween party. Photos of him in his costume went viral on social media outraging the Catholic community as well as some Buddhists.
Rohingya refugees who were stranded walk near the no man's land area between Bangladesh and Myanmar on Oct. 19. Since late August more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled an army campaign in Myanmar's Rakhine state that the United Nations has denounced as ethnic cleansing. (Photo by Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)
"There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That's false," said Wirathu quoted in The New York Times on Aug. 22.
Some Catholics have raised their concerns for the pope's security during the visit while others are anxious — especially among Myanmar's Catholic leaders — on whether the pope will use the Rohingya term or avoid it as they have suggested.
The use of the term Rohingya, the name the ethnic Muslim group self-identifies with, is a sensitive issue in Myanmar. The government and military — along with many Myanmar citizens — instead refer to the million plus Rohingya as "Bengalis" claiming they hail from neighboring Bangladesh.
If the pope does use the term Rohingya in his speeches, Catholic laypeople are concerned the church may face backlash from hard-line Buddhist groups. As part of an effort to prevent this from occurring, Catholic bishops have already advised Pope Francis to avoid using the term.
But Buddhist leader Myint Swe has no concern.
"I believe the pope knows the reality of the country. Even if he uses the Rohingya term, it would just identify the group and not have a political motive," Myint Swe said.
Zaw Min Latt said Pope Francis has the right to say Rohingya and to speak on any issue he wants to highlight.
"I want to ask that even if the pope avoids using the Rohingya name as suggested by Catholic leaders, will the freedom of religion and belief improve more for the minorities such as Christians, Muslims?" Zaw Min Latt asked.