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Pope Francis is in Myanmar through Thursday afternoon (local time), and has already begun to urge the country to peace and justice. At the same time, he seems mindful of the diplomatic tightrope he’s walking regarding the persecuted Rohingya Muslims.
Today, he addressed government leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who also gave an address. He also had an interreligious meeting with Buddhist (Myanmar is majority Buddhist) and other religious leaders.
Among the highlights of what he said:
I am most grateful that my visit comes soon after the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the Holy See. I would like to see this decision as a sign of the nation’s commitment to pursuing dialogue and constructive cooperation within the greater international community, even as it strives to renew the fabric of civil society. Myanmar has been blessed with great natural beauty and resources, yet its greatest treasure is its people, who have suffered greatly, and continue to suffer, from civil conflict and hostilities that have lasted all too long and created deep divisions. The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.
And at the interreligious meeting, as reported by Vatican Radio:
“How beautiful it is to see brothers united!” Pope Francis said. “Unity is not uniformity, even within a religious community. Each one has his values, his riches as also shortcomings,” the pope said, adding, “we are all different.” Each confession has its riches and traditions to give and share. And this can happen only if all live in peace. “Peace,” the pope stressed, “consists in a chorus of differences.” “Unity comes about in differences.”
Before the pope’s departure for Myanmar, we wanted a better understanding of the issues facing the country, and in particular a consideration of a notable event on the Holy Father’s schedule: a private meeting with the leader of the Burmese armed forces (which was moved to his first day there).
I.Media for Aleteia spoke with Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of AsiaNews, the official news agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, about the trip.
How do you interpret the last-minute changes to the Pope’s program: the private audience with the leader of the Burmese armed forces and the meeting with Rohingya refugees when he’s in Bangladesh.
Father Bernardo Cervellera: One cannot organize a papal trip to Burma and conceal the presence of the army. In that country, a good part of the economy and security are still in the military’s hands. The pope will meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, but also with the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing. This is very important for the future of the country, so as to achieve, some day, reconciliation between the army and the civilian government. The army is responsible for provoking the Rohingya crisis, but it is vital that it be integrated into the renewal of the country promised by Aung San Suu Kyi, Minister of Foreign Affairs. And the army doesn’t seem to object…
During the second new event, Pope Francis will meet with the Rohingyas, but in Bangladesh. Is the Church playing the part of mediator in this current crisis?
This is not a position of neutrality! On the contrary, the Holy See is very involved, and is convinced that the possibility of change can only become a reality with the participation of both sides. Meeting the Rohingya in Burma would have been considered offensive, including for the Burmese people. The population is actually very stirred up because of recent testimonies describing violence by Rohingya Muslims against Hindus and Buddhists in the state of Arakan in Burma.
From your point of view, what is the most important issue of this trip?
The Church, in both Burma and Bangladesh, is a small minority. The pope, therefore, is going there to sustain them in their witness before the Buddhist majority [in Burma] and the Muslim majority [in Bangaldesh]. Not to challenge those groups, but rather so [Catholics may better] place themselves at the service of the entire society. These two countries need a development project that facilitates the sharing of wealth. In both cases, there are rich families and generals on one side, and abysmal poverty on the other. In particular, it is important to pay attention to Pope Francis’ meeting with young people in these two countries, because they constitute the future. The pope will undoubtedly call them to build the society of tomorrow.
It is said that there are numerous conversions to Christianity in these countries…
According to our information, it’s essentially a matter of conversions coming from animism. Among the favorable factors in Burma is the fact that Buddhism ceased being the state religion two years ago. On the other hand, the animists are a poor and forgotten minority. They find a way of survival in Christian works of charity—schools, hospitals, assistance, etc. The Church is, therefore, growing, although it still remains a minority.
Behind these two countries, there are two giants: India and China. Will the pope send them an underlying message?
Bangladesh separated from India in 1948. Although Bengali culture is common to them both, the difference lies in Bangladesh’s Muslim majority. However, I believe the pope’s message will also be addressed to India. [I believe his point will be that] a religious majority can coexist peacefully with minorities. Indeed, the temptation to fundamentalism also exists within the Hindu majority in India. As for Burma, it is gradually becoming a secular state that guarantees freedom of religion and the rights of Christians in society. Again, this is a message to China about religious freedom.
Interviewed in Rome by Aymeric Pourbaix, I.MEDIA; translated by Aleteia.