Myanmar: Pope Francis meets Aung San Suu Kyi amid Rohingya crisis

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Did the Pope address the Rohingyas' plight? Bastian Hartig...

Pope Francis has urged Myanmar to uphold human rights and respect all ethnic groups during a highly anticipated address in the capital, Naypyidaw. Despite pleas from rights groups, he did not mention Rohingya Muslims.

Pope Francis called for "respect for each ethnic group and its identity" following a meeting with Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, but avoided referring specifically to the country's persecuted Rohingya minority.

Instead, the 80-year-old pontiff used his speech before lawmakers and diplomats to urge healing in a country suffering from conflicts "that have lasted all too long and created deep divisions."

"Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nationbuilding," he said, sharing a stage with Suu Kyi at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw.

A former Nobel Peace Prize winner, Suu Kyi has been ostracized by the global human rights community over her reaction to a military crackdown, which has seen more than 620,000 Rohingyas flee the country's Rakhine state.

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Pope's visit gives Myanmar Christians hope for peace

In her address to dignitaries, Suu Kyi acknowledged there had been a breakdown of trust between Rakhine's communities and the government, but she also did not mention the Rohingya by name.

"Of the many challenges that our government has been facing, the situation in Rakhine has most strongly captured the attention of the world," Suu Kyi said. She added that the state was attempting to build peace by "protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all."

Read more: Pope faces tightrope act in Myanmar amid Rohingya crisis

Warning from Buddhist nationalists

A hard-line group of Buddhist monks had warned on Monday that there would be "a response" if the pope spoke openly about the Rohingya.

Catholic leaders in the predominantly Buddhist country have reportedly urged Francis to respect the views of the government and the majority of the population that do not consider Rohingya to be citizens, instead calling them "Bengali" — implying they are from Bangladesh.

Read more: Opinion: The pope is visiting a minefield in Myanmar

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Myanmar Papst Franziskus in Naypyitaw

The pope is welcomed by Myanmar's president, Htin Kyaw, during a special ceremony in Naypyitaw

From afar, Francis has repeatedly spoken out about the plight of the Muslim minority, calling them his Rohingya "brothers and sisters." But taking a similar approach in Myanmar would be fraught with potential diplomatic danger, as the term "Rohingya" is viewed as unacceptable.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said he was disappointed the pope hadn't used his speech to draw attention to the Rohingya's plight.

"The Rohingya have been stripped of so many things but their name should never be one of them and we hope that the pope will use the word Rohingya in his Mass (Wednesday)," he said.

Read more: US condemns 'ethnic cleansing' of Rohingya in Myanmar

Meanwhile, DW correspondent Bastian Hartig reported that Buddhist nationalists had taken to social media to denounce the papal visit.

"They're very angry because they feel that he has been taking sides with the Rohingya... they feel like he's interfering in internal affairs," Hartig said.

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Interfaith talks

Before heading to meet Suu Kyi, the pope held talks with Myanmar's religious leaders in the city of Yangon.

A Vatican spokesman said Francis stressed a message of "unity in diversity" during a 40-minute interfaith meeting with Myanmar's Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders.

The spokesman said Francis told them to work together to rebuild the country and that if there are arguments, they should reconcile quickly like brothers.

Francis also briefly met separately with Buddhist leader Sitagu Sayadaw in "an effort to encourage peace and fraternal coexistence as the only way ahead," the spokesman said. Sitagu has been criticized for using ethnic slurs against Muslims.

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Landmark Mass

Pope Francis traveled to Yangon's Kyaikkasan football stadium on Wednesday to celebrate his first public Mass in Myanmar. The pontiff told the crowd of some 150,000 worshippers to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the country's suffering, and instead promote peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.

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Meeting the Lady

On Tuesday, the first full day of his Myanmar visit, Pope Francis was in the capital, Naypyidaw, for talks with Myanmar President Htin Kyaw and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Rights groups had called for him to speak out about the country's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. In a speech, Francis urged "respect for each ethnic group," but did not mention the Rohingya by name.

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'United in diversity'

Earlier, Francis met with leaders of Myanmar's different religious communities at the archbishop's residence in Yangon. During the gathering, the pontiff stressed the importance of "unity in diversity."

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Roll out the red carpet

Although only 700,000 of Myanmar's 52 million inhabitants are Catholic, that didn't keep thousands of well-wishers from meeting Pope Francis at the airport on Monday and lining the streets of Yangon in order to catch a glimpse of the bishop of Rome.

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A cause for celebration

"We come here to see the Holy Father. It happens once in hundreds of years," one Catholic community leader, who brought 1,800 Christians from the south and west to the country on the long train journey to Yangon, told Reuters news agency.

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Minorities greet the pontiff

The pope was greeted by ethnic minorities in traditional dress. About 88 percent of Burmese people identify as Buddhist.

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Humanitarian crisis

The government of Myanmar has been accused of "ethnic cleansing" including the widespread murder and rape of Rohingya Muslims in the country's Rakhine state. Once refugees from Bangladesh, the Rohingya have been declared stateless and persecuted by the Myanmar government.

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Meeting with the commander

Soon after his arrival on Monday, Pope Francis received a "courtesy visit" from Myanmar's army chief Gerneal Min Aung Hlaing. The Vatican did not provide details about the brief meeting. Myanmar's military has been accused of violent purges of Rohingya villages.

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First stop

After Myanmar, the pontiff will head to Bangladesh, where many Rohingya have fled. Some inside the Vatican have said that the trip was arranged too hastily after a visit by the now controversial leader Aung San Suu Kyi to Rome last May.

Four-day papal trip

On Monday, the pope received a "courtesy visit" from army chief Min Aung Hlaing, whose troops have been accused of committing ethnic cleansing and other crimes against the Rohingya population. The general denies the allegations.

Francis' four-day visit to Myanmar was planned before the recent escalation of violence, which began in August when attacks by Rohingya militants were countered by a major army offensive.

Francis will travel on to Bangladesh on Thursday.

nm/rt (AP, dpa)