Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published by Ignatius Press. Follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin
Pope Francis has landed at Yangon international airport, marking the beginning of a delicate six-day apostolic voyage to Burma and Bangladesh.
It is the first ever papal visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar, a country that has suffered six decades of dictatorship but which is now a fledgling democracy.
On the flight from Rome, the Holy Father shared just a few words with reporters: "Good night and thanks so much for the company," he said. "Thanks for your work that always sows much good. I wish you a good visit. They say it’s too hot. I’m sorry but may it at least be fruitful. Now I bid you farewell."
The brevity of his remarks in comparison to those on previous outbound flights perhaps points to the highly sensitive nature of this visit: the Pope is arriving at a highly contentious time for Burma as it grapples with a humanitarian crisis and international condemnation for a military crackdown against the minority Muslim Rohingya that began in late August.
The operation, launched after an attack by Rohingya insurgents that left 12 police officers dead, sent more than 620,000 Rohingya civilians fleeing into Bangladesh after troops and armed civilians burned and ransacked their villages. The Rohingya have suffered persecution since the military dictatorship seized power in 1962; the UN and US condemned this year's alleged atrocities as “ethnic cleansing.”
The Pope has spoken out on behalf of the Rohingya since the crackdown, and will meet a small group of them in Bangladesh’s capital later this week, but he has been urged not to mention them by name while he visits Burma to avoid upsetting his hosts and to prevent possible reprisals against Christians or Muslims in the country.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), there continues to be pervasive and longstanding persecution and discrimination against Christians in Burma.
The Holy Father has stressed in two video messages to Burma and Bangladesh that his visit is one of “reconciliation, forgiveness and peace” and that he aims to encourage the tiny Catholic minorities in both countries.
The Pope decided to visit Burma in May after he met at the Vatican Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s de facto leader, to mark the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. It was therefore planned before the military crackdown over the summer.
After a day of rest today, the Pope will meet Suu Kyi on Tuesday in Burma’s capital Naypyitaw, as well as the country’s president, Htin Kyaw. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has come under fire for not doing enough to help the Rohingya
The following day the Pope will meet Buddhist leaders and celebrate Mass in Yangon. On Thursday morning, before celebrating Mass with young people, he will meet Min Aung Hlaing, Burma’s commander-in-chief who human rights groups hold accountable for alleged mass rapes and shootings of innocent Rohingya during the military crackdown.
The Pope will then fly to Dhaka where he will stay until Dec. 2.
See the full program for the visit here.
Update Nov. 27:
The meeting with Min Aung Hlaing was brought forward to this evening. According to Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, the Pope met Hlaing at 5.55pm along with three lieutenant generals and a lieutenant colonel. The "courtesy visit" lasted 15 minutes and there was an exchange of gifts: the Pope gave a medallion of his visit; the general presented a harp in the shape of a boat and an ornate rice bowl.
Update Nov. 28:
Burmese media reports that Hlaing expressed a "welcoming word for the Pope's visit" and added that all religions teach peace, unity and justice and there's "no religious discrimination" in Burma. Freedom of religion is "prescribed" in Burma, he said, and in the Tatmadaw (Burma's highest military office). He said the Tatmadaw is carrying out all the tasks necessary for "maintaining peace" and wishes for "peace and stability" in the country. He said there is "no discrimination among ethnic races" in Burma.
According to the reports, the Pope was delighted by his warm welcome in the country and the chance to meet Burma's religious leaders. The Holy Father is also reported in Burmese media to have said he was glad to hear the news of the peace-keeping process in Burma and that he prays for the country's peace and prosperity.