Catholic News Service
Pope Francis is expected to focus on trying to improve the troubles of about one million ethnic Rohingya Muslims when he visits Myanmar in the last week of November.
The Vatican has acknowledged a possible trip is being studied, but it has said it is too early to confirm the trip. The visit is expected to be announced officially in September.
The news has already drawn the ire of hard–line Buddhist groups in Myanmar who have fanned sectarian violence and protest, especially against the Rohingya and other Muslims over the past five years.
Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw said a visit by Pope Francis to Myanmar is most likely, although he said he had not officially been informed.
‘The Catholic bishops invited Pope Francis before the 500th anniversary of Catholicism in Myanmar in late 2014,’ Bp Gam said.
‘Some improvements have occurred such as diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the Vatican, plus the appointment of an apostolic nuncio.’
President Htin Kyaw also invited the pope. Observers believe that the unexpected move by Myanmar's civilian-led government was driven by its desire to skirt the powerful military, with which it effectively shares power. Under Myanmar's 2008 constitution, the military retains the crucial defence, border and home affairs portfolios as well as 25 per cent of both houses of parliament.
Last year, Pope Francis had said he hoped to visit India in 2017, but hesitation on the part of the Indian government led Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai to tell Vatican Radio in June that an Indian trip was unlikely before 2018. The current plan calls for the Myanmar visit to precede a visit to Bangladesh.
Senior Catholic sources told ucanews.com that Pope Francis would arrive in Myanmar 27 November for four nights.
According to information shared with top clergy in late July, the pope is expected to first visit the capital, Naypyitaw, where he will meet President Htin Kyaw and Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counsellor and foreign affairs minister and the country's de–facto leader.
Pope Francis will celebrate at least two Masses before heading to the country's largest city and business capital, Yangon, for a large open-air Mass. He is expected to visit and celebrate Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Major Seminary in Yangon.
Most of the Rohingya population in Myanmar's Rakhine state have been denied citizenship. About 120,000 of them are trapped in internally displaced person camps near the state capital, Sittwe. A further 400,000 live in the state's north, which is currently under martial law.
Media are forbidden to travel to the region, but reports of atrocities by the military, including rape, murder and burning villages, have leaked over the past year. Such outrages have further fuelled home-grown violence.
The United Nations says more than 170,000 Rohingya have fled by boat to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in the last five years.
While Pope Francis will not visit Rakhine, he would fly over it on the way to Bangladesh, church sources said, and probably would use that time to make some sort of statement.
One senior clergyman with knowledge of the pope's visit but not authorised to speak about it told ucanews.com: ‘the main impetus behind the pope visiting is to try and help the government make peace with the Rohingya and improve their plight.’
Suu Kyi has been widely and increasingly criticised for her hands–off attitude to the Rohingya crisis and her National League for Democracy's insistence on calling the group not by their self-determined name but as Bengalis.
A papal visit could be a way for her to change the perception that she is ignoring the plight of the Rohingya, internationally,’ one observer noted.