Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, today to cheers from groups of children waving Vatican flags and singing "Viva Papa!" It was a happy, warm welcome for the first ever papal visit to Myanmar.
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But Pope Francis's trip will be dominated by how to address the country’s ongoing crackdown on its Muslim Rohingya minority, which has included mass shootings, systemic rape and the burning of villages by the armed forces. The military's actions amount to ethnic cleansing, according to the United States and United Nations.
The 80-year-old pontiff met this afternoon with Myanmar's General Min Aung Hlaing, the man accused by rights groups of crimes against humanity. It was a quick meeting that included an exchange of gifts and only a short statement confirming that the two men had discussed the “great responsibility of the authorities to the country in this moment of transition.”
But Francis’ very presence in Myanmar could further complicate a very delicate situation, and so he will likely steer clear of any direct mention of the Rohingya, preferring instead to highlight the plight of all minorities in the country. Choosing to meet the generals first, which was a last-minute change to the schedule, was possibly an attempt to further calm the Burmese authorities.
On Tuesday, the pope is scheduled to meet with Myanmar’s president, some of the country’s religious leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She has been roundly condemned for not speaking out against the horrors faced by the Rohingya. Later in the afternoon, he will give his first speech, the first chance the world will get to see how outspoken the normally plain-speaking Francis will be about the crisis.
A mass will be held on Wednesday before the pope heads to Bangladesh to meet some of the 620,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled persecution. He will also meet with Bangladesh’s prime minister and president, as well as visit a center set up by Mother Theresa to help vulnerable people there. He will also be ordaining Bangladeshi priests, an unusual act for a pope abroad.
With only around 500,000 and 300,000 Catholics in Myanmar and Bangladesh respectively, this trip follows a pattern set by this pope of visiting countries with very few church members. Going to the "peripheries" of his community, as he often calls it, is a duty Pope Francis has said he must undertake.