John Zaw, Mandalay and Michael Sainsbury, Yangon
Updated: November 22, 2017 05:12 AM GMT
A priest hears confession in Shan State, Myanmar. There are about 700,000 Catholics in the Buddhist-majority country. (ucanews.com photo)
Pope Francis will focus on trying to improve the troubles of about a million ethnic Muslim Rohingyas when he visits Myanmar, in the first ever papal visit to the country, in the last week of November after being personally invited by President Htin Kyaw.
News of his visit, which has leaked out of the Vatican but is not expected to be officially announced until next month, has already drawn the ire of hard-line Buddhist groups who have fanned sectarian violence and protest, especially against the Rohingya and other Muslims, over the past five years.
"No, no, don't come," "don't visit if you come to Myanmar for Bengalis," and "we oppose the visit if he used the word Rohingya," several Buddhists posted on their Facebook pages.
Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw in Kachin State said a visit by Pope Francis to Myanmar is most likely, although he said he had not officially been informed.
"The Catholic bishops invited Pope Francis before the 500th anniversary of Catholicism in Myanmar in late 2014," Bishop Gam told ucanews.com.
"Some improvements have occurred such as diplomatic relations between Myanmar and Vatican plus the appointment of an apostolic nuncio," he said.
The pope's relatively last minute program change will see the leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics cancel a planned trip to India after prevarication by that nation's strongly pro-Hindu government. The proposed visit to Myanmar will precede the pope visiting neighboring Bangladesh.
Senior Catholic sources told ucanews.com that Pope Francis arrives in Myanmar on Nov. 27 for four nights.
According to information shared with top clergy only two weeks ago, the pope is expected to first visit the jungle capital Naypyidaw where he will meet President Htin Kyaw and the country's de-facto leader, State Counsellor and Foreign Affairs Minister Aung San Suu Kyi.
It is expected that he will hold at least two Masses before heading to the country's largest city and business capital Yangon for a large open air Mass. It is also expected that he will visit and say Mass at the St. Joseph's Catholic Major Seminary in Yangon.
There are about 700,000 Catholics in Myanmar, served by 16 bishops, more than 700 priests and 2,200 religious.
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi meets Pope Francis during a private audience on May 4 at the Vatican. During the visit, the Vatican and Myanmar formally agreed to establish full diplomatic relations. (Photo by Tony Gentile/AFP)
Most of the Rohingya population in Myanmar's Rakhine State have been denied citizenship. About 120,000 of them are trapped in internally displace people (IDP) camps near the state capital Sittwe. A further 400,000 live in the state's north which is currently under martial law.
Press are forbidden to travel to the region but reports of atrocities by the military, including rape, murder and burning villages has leaked out over the past year. Such outrages have further fueled home grown terrorists who have emerged out of desperation.
More than 170,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia — many on risky boats — in the last five years according to the United Nations.
While Pope Francis will not visit Rakhine State he will fly over it on the way to Bangladesh, church sources said, and probably use that time to make some sort of statement. It's a tactic the Argentine pontiff, the first ever from outside Europe, has used before.
"The main impetus behind the pope visiting is to try and help the government make peace with the Roghinyas and improve their plight," said one senior clergyman with knowledge of the pope's visit but not authorized to speak about it. "When the pope received the invitation from President Htin Kyaw, we understand he jumped at it," the source said.
Observers believe that the unexpected move by Myanmar's civilian-led government to invite the pope, a relentless advocate for refugees, has been driven by its desire to skirt the powerful military with which it effectively shares power. Under Myanmar's 2008 constitution the military retains the crucial defense, border and home affairs portfolios as well as 25 percent of both houses of parliament.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely and increasingly criticized by democratic governments around the world for her hands-off attitude to the Rohingya crisis and her National League for Democracy's insistence on calling the group not by their self-determined name but as Bengalis.
"[The pope's visit] may be a way for her to change the perception that she is ignoring the plight of the Rohingya, internationally," one observer noted.
Nyan Win, a central executive committee member of the National League for Democracy, would not confirm the visit but said the government would welcome the pope if he visited Myanmar.
"There is no religious persecution and freedom of religion prevails in Myanmar, all religions have been living together peacefully so it is welcoming news about pope's visit," Nyan Win told ucanews.com.