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Pope makes first visit to Myanmar amid Rohingya crisis

Pontiff to play delicate balancing act or risk backlash against Christians

Christians line the streets of Yangon to welcome Pope Francis on Monday. (Photo by Thurein Hla Tway)

YANGON/GENEVA -- Pope Francis began a six-day tour of Myanmar and Bangladesh on Monday -- his first visit to either country.

The trip comes as large numbers of Muslim Rohingya flee alleged persecution in western Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh, and much attention will focus on how the pontiff addresses the issue.

Pope Francis touched down in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, where he was welcomed by local Christians.

"The Pope will give us light. He will make Myanmar known to the world," said Joseph Myat Soe Latt, who had come from Kachin State in the north of the country, an area with a large Christian population. Naw Jar, also from Kachin, said, "We don't care about Rohingya or whatever. What is important is we want peace in the country."

Pope Francis becomes the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Myanmar, where he will stay until Thursday. On Tuesday, he is scheduled to meet with the country's de facto leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. On Thursday, he will meet the military's Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing before moving on to the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka and meeting with Rohingya refugees the next day.

Myanmar's acceptance of a visit from the pope is an apparent display of religious tolerance as the country comes under increasing pressure from the international community over the treatment of the Rohingya.

Many Rohingya have fled across the border since the government launched sweeping counterterrorism "clearance operations" in August following a number of attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents. During that time, anti-Muslim sentiment has been growing among Myanmar's Buddhist majority, who make up about 90% of the population.

The visit provides a chance for Suu Kyi to underscore her efforts to promote reconciliation between religious groups to the population as well as the outside world.

For Pope Francis, however, this is a highly sensitive matter.

"Simply because they uphold their Muslim faith [...] for years they have been suffering," he said in February.

But with ill-feeling toward the Rohingya among the majority at such high levels, any remark sympathetic to the group could risk sparking a backlash against the country's Christians.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, has reportedly advised the pope not to actually use the word "Rohingya" in his statements.

"He risks either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country," Thomas Reese, senior analyst at Religion News Service, wrote on Nov. 20.

The pope's visit to Myanmar could not be more different to his trip to the predominantly Christian Philippines in 2015.

As he made his way through Yangon, most people away from the procession said they were unaware of the visit.

"Today the police are asking me to go away [for security reasons]," lamented a mango vendor who usually plies his trade near St. Mary's Cathedral, where Christians had gathered to welcome the pontiff. 

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