Thousands of ethnic Kachin from northern Myanmar are traveling to Yangon to welcome Pope Francis, who is scheduled to arrive in the country on Nov. 27.
U Naw, a Kachin religious leader, said there were about 7,000 Kachin Catholics in Myitkyina who would make the trip to Yangon to see Pope Francis.
The Irrawaddy’s Mandalay-based photographer interviewed the travellers from Kachin at the city’s train station today as they made their way to Yangon.
“We are Group 2 on our list. About 800 people are in our group,” U Naw said, adding more followers would come over the next few days.
The elder expressed hope the pope’s visit would support the peace process in the country.
The Kachin region has been wracked by fighting between the Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since 2011, when a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down. The fighting has forced more than 130,000 Kachin villagers to flee their homes.
A poster was erected at a Catholic church in Yangon to welcome Pope Francis with the words, “A Heartiest Welcome to the Holy Father Pope Francis, Missionary of Love and Peace.”
Pope Francis will visit Myanmar for four days during which time he will meet State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
This is the first time a pope has visited Myanmar and his trip comes when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh following an anti-militant sweep by the Myanmar Army through Rakhine state. The Pope has faulted the Myanmar Aarmy for rights abuses allegedly carried out during the clearance operation.
Myanmar’s leaders have asked the pope not to use the word “Rohingya” during his visit so as to avoid inflaming local sensitivities.
Myanmar has about 700,000 people who profess to be Catholic and for many of them it is the first time they have had had a chance to see a pope in person. Members of other ethnic groups such as the Karen, Kayar and Chin are also expected to come to Yangon to witness Pope Francis’s visit.
U Tangun, an ethnic Kachin man said, “I came from Myitkyina. Many people have come for this. The train has 11 carriages and it was full with all of us.”
The group left from Myitkyina at 10: 30 am yesterday, and reached Mandalay train station in this morning.
“We have never heard of a pope visiting our country in our age. But, we heard that he has come to visit us this time. We are very pleased, and want to welcome him,” said U Tangun.
“The intention of our trip is to support peace and people living in harmony together in our country. Our Kachin region does not have peace. The pope is a respected person in the world, and we recognize him as a special person,” he said.
The journey is a long one for the Kachin pilgrims, taking two days and two nights from Myitkyina to Yangon. But Tar Zwa Taung, an ethnic Kachin woman, said any discomfort was minor compared to the opportunity to meet the pope. “I do not feel it was difficult to make the trip as I really wanted to come to see Pope Francis.”
The pope will land at the airport in Yangon at 1 pm local time with a large crowed expected to be waiting to greet him. On Nov. 29, he will lead a public mass at Kyaik Ka San Stadium at 8:30 am.
On the completion of his trip to Myanmar, Francis will visit neighboring Bangladesh.