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What awaits the pope in Myanmar and Bangladesh?

Aung Kyaw Htet | AFP
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The November 27-December 2 visit to two countries with tiny Catholic populations will not be easy

Pope Francis told Catholics in Myanmar he has one goal for his upcoming visit to their country: to proclaim the Gospel and its message of reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness. He said, “The Gospel teaches the dignity of man and woman and commands us to open our hearts.”

Pope Francis also said he will visit Myanmar in the “spirit of respect and encouragement.”

The pope is scheduled to visit Myanmar from November 27 to 30 before travelling to Bangladesh where he will stay until December 2.

While the pope says his visit is purely pastoral, to encourage local Catholics who are a minority in each of the countries he will visit, the journey has taken on more importance as people wait to hear what – if anything – the outspoken pope will say about the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

The papal trip also comes just a few months after the Myanmar government and the Holy See formally established full diplomatic ties.

On November 28 the pope will meet with Myanmar president Htin Kyaw in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Myanmar. He will also meet with State Counsellor Aung Sang Suu Kyi. It will be the second time that Pope Francis and Suu Kyi have met in the past year.

The State Counsellor met with the pope at the Vatican in May. During that meeting the pontiff and his secretary of state expressed their concerns about the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine state.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, told Vatican Radio that Suu Kyi’s response was “in line with other things that have been said.” He also said Church officials in Myanmar would continue to put pressure on authorities in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi has maintained that the international community has misunderstood the situation but on October 13 announced plans to deliver humanitarian aid to the Rohingya in Rakhine.

Catholics are minorities in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. About 700,000 people, less than 1.5% of Myanmar’s population is Catholic.  In neighboring Bangladesh, Catholics make up an even smaller part of the population. There are only 350,000 Catholics in a country of 153 million.

The Vatican only established full diplomatic relations with Myanmar in May and the first Papal Nuncio to Myanmar, Archbishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, presented his credentials to Myanmar’s president on October 12.  Pope Francis accepted the credentials of Myanmar’s ambassador to the Holy See, San Lwin on November 9.

Since the papal visit was announced, the plight of the Rohingya – a mainly Muslim minority that have long been discriminated against and denied citizenship – has reached a critical peak. Pope Francis has publicly called for an end to the violent persecution of the Rohingya and privately raised the issue with Myanmar’s State Counsellor.   

In late August, 12 military guards were killed by members of a militant Rohingya group. The military unleashed such violence in response that surviving Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh, where refugee camps are already full with Rohingya who’ve fled earlier outbreaks of violence.

An estimated 600,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine state since August. They reported their villages were systematically burned and civilians killed by the miliatry. A BBC journalist witnessed one village being burned. The government claims the military was fighting an insurgent group.

The international community has issued repeated calls for the government to put an end to the violence, calling it a genocide.

On October 17, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon told a religious news website that Suu Kyi was a “great leader” and in light of recent events “involving Rakhine people…everyone in the world wants to advise Myanmar.” The cardinal avoided using the term “Rohingya,” which is a term the country’s Buddhist majority does not accept.

The Bishops of Myanmar and international political experts have advised the pope to avoid using the term “Rohingya” during his visit. I.Media reported this week that Cardinal Bo said the pope had accepted this suggestion.

Cardinal Bo also said the international community needed to understand and support Suu Kyi’s government because “she cannot turn history in 18 months of rule.” He added that his country also needed to understand the “concerns and anxieties” of the international community.  

It is in the middle of this situation that Pope Francis will touch down in Yangon on November 27.

While Pope Francis is not expected to meet with members of the Rohingya community, he will meet with members of the military and the country’s Buddhist leaders – both groups implicated in the persecution of the Rohingya.

Military leaders are expected to attend a public gathering with the pope and government officials in the capital city. On November 29 the pope will also meet with the supreme council of Buddhist monks at the Kaba Aye Centre in Yangon.

Cardinal Bo told Vatican Radio he asked Pope Francis to consider meeting informally with all Myanmar’s religious leaders, not just Buddhist leaders. He also said he asked the pope to meet privately with the military’s senior general for a dialogue. “Perhaps [Pope Francis] could soften his heart,” the cardinal said. I.Media reported the pope had accepted the suggestion of adding these two meetings to his schedule.

In Bangladesh, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at Dhaka’s Suhrawardy Udyan Park on December 1. During that Mass he will ordain 16 priests. The focus will be squarely on bolstering the faith of the Catholics of Bangladesh.

During his 1986 visit to the Bangladesh, Pope John Paul II ordained 18 priests. He also appealed to the Bangladeshi people to assure peace and development in their country because he said those are the conditions for a better future for humanity.

Pope Francis will also take part in an interreligious and ecumenical “meeting for peace.” Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka told Vatican Radio the pope will stress the importance of “harmony and peace in different aspects of national life.”

The pope winds up his visit meeting with youth at Dhaka’s Notre Dame College. As he has done during other apostolic visits, the pope will aim to give the young people a proverbial shot in the arm, encourage them to be involved and engaged and persevere in doing what they know is right.

During his 1986 visit Pope John Paul II urged young Bangladeshis to learn to respect others and defend religious freedom.

It has not been decided if Pope Francis will meet with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

The pope returns to Rome late December 2.

Pope Francis’ trip marks the first ever papal visit to Myanmar, which was under harsh military rule from 1962 to 2011, and the second papal visit to Bangladesh. Pope John Paul II visited Bangladesh in 1986 to encourage greater religious harmony.

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