YANGON (AFP) – Pope Francis will visit Myanmar and Bangladesh later this year, the Vatican announced yesterday, hours after the Catholic leader decried the plight of Rohingya Muslims as they flee fighting between the army and militants.
The landmark visit in late November and early December takes in Myanmar – a largely Buddhist country plagued by inter-religious fighting – and Muslim-majority Bangladesh which hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from that conflict.
Pope Francis has frequently lamented the treatment of the Rohingya, a largely stateless Muslim minority who have long lived under apartheid-like restrictions in the state of Rakhine.
Tens of thousands have fled to Bangladesh in recent months to escape fighting between Rohingya militants and Myanmar’s army – with particularly ferocious clashes erupting in the last few days.
Announced simultaneously yesterday in Rome, Yangon and Dhaka, the visit will see Pope Francis travel first to Myanmar on November 27 to 30, taking in Yangon and Naypyidaw.
On November 30 he will travel to the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, leaving on December 2.
It is the first time a pope has travelled to Myanmar and only the second time a papal visit has been made to Bangladesh after Pope John Paul II’s trip there in 1986.
Myanmar boasts somewhere between 500-800,000 Catholics while Bangladesh has an even smaller community of some 350,000.
Myanmar and the Vatican only established full diplomatic relations in May, shortly after de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi met Pope Francis during a European tour. That visit was overshadowed by her country’s treatment of the Rohingya.
Only weeks before Pope Francis had described the Muslim minority as “brothers and sisters” who were were being tortured and killed for their faith. He added they were “good and peaceful people who have suffered for years”, and urged Catholics to pray for them.
On Sunday, as fresh fighting raged in Rakhine state, he hit out once more at the “sad news about the persecution of the religious minority of our Rohingya brothers”. “I would like to express my closeness to them and all of us ask the Lord to save them and to prompt men and women of good faith to help them and ensure their full rights,” he added.
Impoverished Rakhine, which neighbours Bangladesh, has become a crucible of religious hatred focused on Rohingya, who are reviled and perceived as illegal immigrants in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Despite years of persecution and government restrictions, the Rohingya largely eschewed violence. But sporadic armed clashes have erupted since October when a previously unknown Rohingya militant group staged a series of attacks on security forces, sparking a massive crackdown by Myanmar’s military which the UN believes may have amounted to ethnic cleansing.
A brutal round of fresh fighting has been raging since Friday when militants staged new coordinated ambushes.
More than 100 people, including some 80 militants, have been confirmed killed.
Thousands of Rohingya civilians have fled towards Bangladesh while local Buddhists and Hindus have sought sanctuary in towns and monasteries.
Both sides have accused each other of committing fresh atrocities in recent days, accusations that are difficult to verify because the fighting is taking place in inaccessible villages.
Ms Suu Kyi’s government has dismissed accusations of atrocities and refused visas to UN officials tasked with investigating the allegations – a stance that has caused dismay overseas.
Analysts say Ms Suu Kyi knows there is little domestic political advantage in supporting the Rohingya while her civilian administration has limited control over the country’s notoriously abusive military.
Buddhist nationalist hardliners in Myanmar have previously vowed to protest any papal visit because of
the pope’s sympathy for the Rohingya.
While they may not see eye-to-eye on the Rohingya, the Vatican is keen to court Myanmar’s government
now that diplomatic ties are established. A key issue for the Church in Myanmar is its ability to support Catholic education.