YANGON — Pope Francis said religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust during his speech in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church arrived in Myanmar on Monday for a four-day visit, becoming the first pontiff to visit the Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country where Christians make up less than 6.2 percent of the population and Muslim account for less than 5 percent.
“Religious differences need not to be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building,” he said in a speech delivered to government cabinet members, officials and guests from different faiths in Naypyitaw after his meeting with the country’s President U Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday afternoon.
“I would like my visit to embrace the entire population of Myanmar and to offer a word of encouragement to all those who are working to build a just, reconciled and inclusive social order,” said the pope.
The papal visit to Myanmar coincides with international pressure on the country over 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. Last week, Myanmar and Bangladesh reached an agreement for a repatriation process.
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 a majority of the people reject the term and instead refer to the Rohingya as Bengali, implying they are immigrants from Bangladesh. During his speech the pope avoided the term and did not mention the plight of the Rohingya.
Pope Francis also expressed his appreciation for the peace efforts of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government through the Panglong Peace Conference “in an attempt to end violence, to build trust and to ensure respect for the rights of all who call this land [Myanmar] their home.”
“As the nation now works to restore peace, the healing of those wounds must be a paramount political and spiritual priority,” he said.
In her greeting speech to the pope on Tuesday at the same event, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said Myanmar was trying to achieve mutual understanding and harmony among the different communities in Rakhine State.
“Papal understanding on peace, national reconciliation and social harmony that me and all Myanmar people have been longing for brings strength and hope for Myanmar,” said she.
The pope will hold a mass for the Catholic faithful in Yangon on Wednesday. He will leave Myanmar for Bangladesh on Thursday to visit Rohingya refugee there.
Prior to his meetings with the president and state counselor, Pope Francis on Monday received Myanmar military Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who has been internationally condemned for alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya by his troops.
On Tuesday, the Pope met 17 representatives of several faiths including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus at the Archbishop’s House in Yangon.
U Aye Lwin, a Muslim representative who joined the meeting, told The Irrawaddy that the pope focused on unity and peace and did not talk about Myanmar specifically.
“He said diversity has its value and dignity. Harmonizing the diversity is peace, urging us to seriously value diversity as it leads to peace and loving kindness,” said U Aye Lwin, paraphrasing the pope.
The Muslim representative said the papal visit was “symbolic” and will help the country cope with the challenges it is facing.