Pope Francis adjusts his skull cap as he prepares to disembark from a plane as he arrives at the Yangon International Airport on Nov. 27. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
Catholics and people of other faiths across Asia have welcomed Pope Francis’ ongoing visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh as an opportunity to promote regional stability.
Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan have focused on the scope for the papal tour to help bring an end to violent military repression of the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar.
A widespread regional view is that Pope Francis has the personal moral authority to encourage dialogue as an alternative to violence, not only in the two nations he is visiting, but more widely.
Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar on Nov 27. His next visit will be to Bangladesh from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2.
Indonesians hope visit will bring peace in Myanmar
Most Indonesians are well aware that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in recent months.
And they hope Pope Francis will, while in Myanmar, personally take up the issue of the mistreatment that forced them to become refugees.
Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, chairman of the youth wing of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Islamic organization, said Pope Francis has the personal high standing to urge people to respect humanity. He noted that this is called dakwah, or missionary endeavor, in Islam.
"The pope’s visit to Myanmar will help create peace awareness," he said.
"What the pope does is a soft diplomacy, which is a must, and we have to respect his efforts."
However, Simanjuntak said that since the Rohingya issue involves state crimes, hard diplomacy had also become necessary.
Jimmu Gunabhadra, a Buddhist monk, said that the pope’s visit symbolized a need to end the Rohingya conflict, regardless of religious issues.
Meanwhile, Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, national secretary of Indonesia’s Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, noted that Pope Francis has a strong commitment to conflict resolution.
He added the current visit is a reminder to the whole of Asia on the need to strengthen fraternal bonds rather than resort to military interventions.
Fandis Nggarang of the Indonesia Catholic Students Association, said the pope’s visit showed that he was concerned for the whole of Asia.
"By visiting this region, the pope wants to send message to the world about the importance of religion as instrument for peace," Nggarang said.
"I think he also wants to show to Christians that we are called to always attend and offer peace, especially in an atmosphere of conflict."
No Pakistan church officials will be able to visit Myanmar during the current visit by Pope Francis.
Father Inayat Bernard, secretary of the Pakistan Catholic Press Association, blames the Myanmar government for that.
Three priests applied for Myanmar visas, but all were denied.
Back in 2015, one of the priests was given a visa to enter Myanmar.
However, criticism by the Pakistan Government over the repression of Rohingya in Myanmar, as well as street protests on the issue, had resulted in the travel restrictions, Father Bernard told ucanews.com
When Pope Francis in August appealed for an end to persecution of Rohingya, he made a positive impression in Pakistan, Father Bernard said.
"It’s a tricky situation for the pope himself as there are many factors involved in Rakhine State," he added.
However, the priest cautioned that the Rohingya cause had been "weakened" by the violence of Rohingya insurgents.
With Pope Francis having begun his trip to Myanmar, Indian Catholics regret missing a chance to meet him in their homeland, nostalgically recalling past papal visits.
Catholic groups began discussing plans to host the pontiff after the Vatican early this year confirmed a papal visit to South Asia.
Nobody then expected a papal itinerary would not include India, a nation of 19 million Catholics.
In August, the Vatican announced that the Nov. 27-Dec. 2 journey would only include Myanmar and Bangladesh, whereas the original plan had been to visit India and Bangladesh.
The lack of an official invitation for Pope Francis to visit India is widely seen as being the result of political considerations by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
The government is run by the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Observers say BJP feared that Modi hosting Pope Francis would have alienated majority-Hindu voters ahead of scheduled 2019 national elections.
One of those who are unhappy about Pope Francis now not vising India is Johana Xalxo, an Oraon ethnic minority women and a school principal in the capital, New Delhi.
Xalxo, 52, said she was privileged to meet now Saint Pope John Paul II in 1986 when he toured some 15 Indian cities, including her city of Ranchi, capital of present Jharkhand State.
Priests hope pope will say something on China
Though China is not on the pope’s itinerary, Chinese priests still want him to say something about their country.
Father Paul, a Chinese Catholic priest, said he expected "some message" to Catholics in China to strengthen their faith.
Another priest, Father John, told ucanews.com that Pope Francis and the church could facilitate mainland China dialogue with Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Vietnam’s Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People announced that it would lead a delegation to Myanmar for Pope Francis’ Nov. 27-30 visit.
The church in Myanmar also offered press passes to some Vietnamese Catholic journalists.
The Vietnamese delegation will also attend a special Mass for Vietnamese migrant workers in Myanmar on Nov. 28.
In summary, tens of millions Catholics in the region, including in the Catholic majority Philippines, will be following Pope Francis as he reaches out to the faithful of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
They, and members of other faiths, deeply hope that good will come of it more broadly in a region buffeted by internal and cross-border conflicts.
This is the third time Pope Francis has visited Asia since his inauguration in 2013. He visited South Korea in 2014 and Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015.