YANGON: Pope Francis on Thursday wrapped up a visit to Myanmar defined by his decision not to address the Rohingya crisis in public, and flew on to Bangladesh, where huge numbers of refugees from the Muslim minority languish in refugee camps.
Christians make up less than 0.5 percent of mainly Muslim Bangladesh, but have in recent years come under attack from Islamist radicals.
Just days before Francis’ arrival, a Catholic priest disappeared in a village in northern Bangladesh.
In Myanmar the pontiff walked a diplomatic tightrope, staying away from allegations that the army is waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, despite pressure to confront the incendiary issue publically.
He also refrained from mentioning the minority by name during his four-day trip in which he held two masses and private meetings with civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing.
Myanmar’s government denies the Rohingya are an ethnic group, insisting they are “Bengali” immigrants who are not entitled to full citizenship.
But the Vatican rejected suggestions the Pope’s reticence to tackle the Rohingya crisis head-on represented a failure of moral leadership.
A spokesman late on Wednesday said the Pope’s presence alone drew attention to Myanmar’s myriad troubles and his “moral authority” remained undimmed.
“He’s not afraid of minefields,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told a press conference, hinting the pope’s discussions in private may have been more strident.
Francis had previously expressed concern over the Rohingya’s persecution, calling the stateless group “brothers and sisters.”
But he was urged not to utter their name in Myanmar to avoid provoking hardline Buddhists and making the country’s Catholic community a target.
“He seemed to comprehend the dilemma he faced,” David Mathieson, a Yangon-based analyst, told Agence France-Presse, applauding his diplomatic dexterity in a country where the army still holds great power.
“He is the Pope, not a pugilist… he was here to help the country work through this horrific humanitarian crisis and listen to both the civilian and military leadership,” he added.
Themes of rights and justice The pontiff has been warmly embraced by Myanmar’s minority of Catholics, who make up just over one percent of the population.
On Thursday, Francis led a mass at a cathedral in downtown Yangon, which was also broadcast on a big screen in the church’s basketball court where throngs of faithful craned for a view of their religious leader.
“I’m very happy that he came to Myanmar… we are lucky because even our grand-parents never saw a Pope,” 60-year-old Cinthia Andrew, from Shan state, told AFP.
In his homily the Pope urged young people to defend “human rights” and “justice” – the central theme of his public addresses throughout his landmark visit.
The Pope lands later Thursday in Bangladesh, a country struggling to provide for the more than 620,000 Rohingya who have crushed into its refugee camps after fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
He is not scheduled to visit the camps but will meet a small group of Rohingya in Dhaka on Friday.
His visit coincides with the disappearance of a Catholic priest on Monday in the same village where suspected Islamist extremists hacked a Catholic grocer to death last year.
Walter William Rosario, 40, had been making arrangements for some 300 Catholics to travel to Dhaka for the pope’s mass.
Since 2015 at least three Christians, including two converts from Islam, have been hacked to death in attacks blamed on the militant Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh.
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