YANGON — Pope Francis has arrived in Yangon on Monday afternoon, becoming the first Pope to visit Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where only one percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Hundreds of faithful Catholics lined the road outside Yangon International Airport to welcome him, holding the flags of Myanmar and the Vatican.
The Papal visit coincides with international pressure on the Southeast Asian country regarding human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh after army security clearance operations in late August and allegations of killings, rape and arson.
Pope Francis was warned, including by Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, to avoid using the term ‘Rohingya’ during his visit, so as not to upset the host country or trigger a backlash, as the government, military and majority of the people reject the term and instead refer to the Rohingya as ‘Bengali,’ inferring they are immigrants from Bangladesh.
Vatican officials said the Pope’s six-day visit was meant to send a message of “reconciliation, forgiveness and peace.” During the trip, the 80-year-old pope will have meetings with Myanmar’s President U Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw.
He will hold a mass in Yangon on Wednesday and meet with the country’s military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing the following day before flying to Bangladesh, where he is expected to meet with Rohingya refugees.
Diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the Vatican were established in May during the State Counselor’s trip there. The papal visit was marked at the time as well.
Myanmar has about 700,000 people who profess to be Catholic and for many of them it is the first time they have had a chance to see the pope in person.
On Friday, about 7,000 Catholics from Kachin State in northern Myanmar took a two-night train ride down to Yangon to welcome the pope.
Members of other ethnic groups such as the Karen, Kayah and Chin are also expected to travel to Yangon to witness the visit.