Pope Francis will meet this month with the military chief of Myanmar as well as the Rohingya Muslims who claim to be persecuted by the country’s armed forces.
During a trip to Myanmar, starting November 26, the pontiff will meet with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing shortly before leaving for neighboring Bangladesh.
Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo persuaded the pope to add a meeting with the general to his schedule. Bo also advised the pope not to use the term “Rohingya” during his visit, for fear of inflaming tensions in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Myanmar’s military and government officials decline to use a term they see as giving the Muslims of the northern Rakhine state the status of an ethnic minority. The official line is that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Human rights groups and the United Nations accuse the Myanmar army of atrocities against the minority Muslim population.
Visit to camps
The United Nations estimates more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh, where they live in squalid refugee camps. The pope will meet some of those refugees when he visits Bangladesh starting December 1.
“The pope’s visit comes at a key moment for these two countries,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, adding that he expected a very interesting trip.
Francis will also separately meet Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader and Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.
International condemnation of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya has mounted in recent days, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying Wednesday that it amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Bo, the top Catholic official in Myanmar, has defended Aung San Suu Kyi against what he termed “unfair” international criticism leveled against her. He has said she has no constitutional right to speak out against the military operation and has maneuvered in the best possible way to negotiate improvements not only for Rohingya but also for Myanmar’s other minorities, Catholics included.