International desk, November 27: Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar Monday on a highly sensitive visit to a country facing sharp global criticism for the alleged ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya minority.
Catholics in colourful ethnic traditional dress waved flags and danced at Yangon’s airport in a joyful welcome for the pope, making the first visit to the country by a pontiff.
The visit comes as Myanmar’s military stands accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya. More than 620,000 have fled a crackdown in northern Rakhine State for neighbouring Bangladesh over the past three months.
The pope’s four-day visit intensifies pressure on Myanmar over its treatment of the stateless minority, a group he has called his “brothers and sisters” in repeated entreaties to ease their plight.
His speeches will be scrutinised by Buddhist hardliners for any mention of the word “Rohingya”, an incendiary term in a country where the Muslim group are reviled and deemed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Francis will meet State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and hold talks with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Speaking to a crowd of 30,000 people in St Peter’s Square, shortly before he left Rome, the pontiff said: “I ask you to be with me in prayer so that, for these peoples, my presence is a sign of affinity and hope.”
His visit is a historic chance for Myanmar’s flock to get close to the head of their church.
Myanmar’s estimated 700,000 Catholics make up just over one percent of the country’s 51 million people and are scattered in far-flung corners of the nation, many of them roiled by conflict.
Around 200,000 Catholics are pouring into Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, by plane, train and car ahead of a huge open-air mass on Wednesday.
“We are ready to welcome the Pope cheerfully… with pure hearts,” a woman from the northernmost state of Kachin told AFP, one of hundreds waiting near the archbishop’s residence in Yangon.