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Pope Francis calls for forgiveness in Myanmar

'Anger not the way' says first pontiff to visit Southeast Asian nation

Pope Francis moves through a crowd at an open-air mass at the Kyaikkasan Grounds stadium in Yangon on Wednesday. (Photo by Thurein Hla Htway)

YANGON -- Pope Francis spoke at an open-air mass in Yangon on Wednesday, calling for "forgiveness and compassion," and telling his audience to reject "anger and revenge," as the country struggles with ethnic strife and the Rohingya Muslim refugee crisis, which has drawn international criticism.

"I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence," the pope said in a speech at the Kyaikkasan Grounds stadium in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar, which he has been visiting since Monday. He is the first pontiff to visit the Southeast Asian country.

A bell started ringing as he arrived at the stadium at 8 a.m. local time. The mainly Catholic audience welcomed him by quietly waving flags. The pope slowly made his way through the crowd in a car, waving. 

The pope met Tuesday with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also foreign minister, in Naypyitaw, the capital.

He told her the path to national reconciliation and peace "only can advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights," and called for cooperation with the international community. 

The pope did not mention the word "Rohingya" during the meeting, apparently out of consideration for anti-Muslim sentiment among the country's Buddhist majority.

Nan, a 40-year-old woman who came to Yangon Tuesday night from the northern state of Kachin, which has a relatively large Christian population, called the pope's visit a "historic event."

Asked about the Rohingya crisis, she said the pope "came here for peace among all ethnics. I believe the problems will be solved."

According to a 2014 census, 6.2% of Myanmar's population was Christian. They mostly live in ethnic minority states such as Kachin and Chin.

Later Wednesday, the pope met with local Buddhist leaders. On Thursday, he is slated to travel to Dhaka, capital of neighboring Bangladesh, where he is scheduled to meet with Rohingya refugees. The pope is scheduled to leave Bangladesh on Saturday.

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