Pope Promotes Peace and Love in Troubled Burma

Highlights of Francis’ visit, a ‘missionary journey of peace and love’

Burmese faithful offer a papal welcome as Pope Francis arrived in Burma.
Burmese faithful offer a papal welcome as Pope Francis arrived in Burma. (photo: via Edward Pentin Twitter)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis successfully navigated a minefield of potential diplomatic incidents during his visit this week to Burma — the first ever by a pope — helping to unify the nation and putting the country’s Catholic Church “on the map.”

This was the general assessment of some of the country’s bishops and Holy See spokesman Greg Burke when speaking to reporters in Yangon on the last full day in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, before heading to the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.

In view of Francis’ deep concern for migrants, much was made of the possibility he would mention the persecuted Rohingya, the Islamic ethnic minority historically located in the Rakhine, the country’s western province. Around 620,000 people fled from Burma to Bangladesh over the summer following a brutal military crackdown — the second in less than a year. The United Nations condemned the latest operation as “ethnic cleansing.”

The Pope had been warned not to use the word “Rohingya,” most notably by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, who told him privately it would incite the majority of the country’s population that has long resented their presence in the country (despite the Rohingya’s long history there, most Burmese view the ethnic minority as stateless, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who have radical, Islamist tendencies — something the Rohingya strenuously deny).

Instead, in a speech to civil authorities in the new Burmese capital Nay Pyi Taw Nov. 28, the Holy Father spoke about “respect for each ethnic group” and duly avoided mentioning the name in any of his discourses in the country, despite having used it earlier in the year. Some Rohingya activist groups were “very disappointed” by the omission, although others praised the Pope for his call to respect all ethnicities.

Burke told reporters the Vatican had not lost its moral authority because of the decision not to reference the Rohingya, adding that critics are allowed to voice their opinion, as “Vatican diplomacy isn’t infallible.” He said the Pope’s visit had nevertheless “drawn attention” to the issue, which he said is “an incredibly positive thing.” The Pope will probably use the contentious word in Dhaka, where he is due to meet a small group of Rohingya Friday.

Naeem, a Muslim activist with the pro-Rohyingya Lakathara Foundation, told the Register Nov. 29 that the fact the Pope couldn’t use the name in Burma shows how far, after six decades of military dictatorship, the nation still has to go to become a fully democratic state (Burma held its landmark first elections in 2015).


Meets Military Leader

Throughout the visit, the Pope sought to foster “peace and love” — the official theme of the visit.

On the day of his arrival, Nov. 27, he agreed to meet the head of Burma’s armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, whom human-rights groups hold ultimately responsible for atrocities in the Rakhine. The meeting had been originally scheduled for the Holy Father’s last day, but according to informed sources, Hlaing, who has ambitions to one day lead Burma, asked for the meeting to be brought forward allegedly because he wanted to meet the Pope first, rather than the democratically elected de facto head of the Burmese government, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The “courtesy visit” with three other lieutenant generals lasted 15 minutes, with Hlaing utilizing the meeting to claim “no discrimination among ethnic races” exists in Burma.

Despite ongoing discrimination and sporadic persecution against Christians in Burma, the military welcomed the Pope because he is seen as “a very good person all over the world,” Aung Htin, a Buddhist journalist, told the Register. “The military’s intention is to maintain and build peace and tranquility, and they see the Pope as helping them in that.”

The next morning, the Pope had another private meeting, this time with interreligious and interdenominational leaders. He used the occasion to hold up “unity in diversity” between faiths and confessions and the importance of being reconciled as “brothers,” while speaking out against a “cultural colonization” that promotes “uniformity.” Afterward, he briefly met Sitagu Sayadaw, an outspoken Buddhist leader who has been criticized for allegedly using slurs against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya. Burke said the meeting took place “to encourage peace and fraternal coexistence.”


Capital Visit

A short flight to the Burmese capital followed in the afternoon, during which the Holy Father addressed civil and political authorities and diplomats. As well as underlining respect for ethnicity and identity, the Pope stressed the importance of a “commitment to justice,” respect for the “rule of law” and “democratic order,” a “culture of encounter and solidarity” and “bridges of dialogue” between religions and ethnic groups.  

He shared the stage with Aung San Suu Kyi, who has come under fire internationally for not doing enough to defend the Rohingya. She referred to the crisis as the “situation in the Rakhine,” referencing the region of northwest Burma where the group is concentrated, and expressed her appreciation for those who support “harmony and cooperation” in Burma, singling out the Pope’s “gifts of compassion and encouragement.”

Citing the beatitudes, she said the Burmese government wished to create a future where Burma’s people are “united and at peace,” as well as a “compassionate and generous people” ready to help “those in need.”

Sources told the Register that many Burmese believe Suu Kyi is being set up to fail by the military, who, through their summer crackdown, put her in an unenviable position, making her unpopular both abroad and with the Rohingya.  

Bishop John Hsane Hgyi of Pathein told reporters Suu Kyi “has been suffering for the country” and he didn’t know why countries are pressuring her. He suggested the news about the Rohingya was inaccurate. Before criticizing, people “should go into the field to study the reality and the history, and only then can they say something,” he said. 


First-Ever Papal Mass

The push toward unity to further peace and love continued apace on the third day, when the Pope celebrated the first-ever papal Mass in the country.

In his homily at the Kyaikkasan Grounds in Yangon, the Pope urged the 150,000 Burmese faithful, who traveled on perilous transport from many poor rural areas of the country, to be guided by the Lord’s wisdom and love. It is like a “spiritual GPS” to the “inner life of God and the heart of neighbor,” he said — a love that seeks “not revenge, but forgiveness and compassion.”

In the afternoon in this Buddhist-majority nation, the Holy Father addressed the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee of Buddhists. He said, again with a nod to the Rohingya, “authentic justice and lasting peace can only be achieved when they are guaranteed for all” and called for “greater cooperation” between religious leaders if peace, security and prosperity are to be achieved. Sangha’s chairman, Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, told the Pope in his address: “We cannot accept that terrorism and extremism are born of a certain religious faith.”

In his meeting with Burmese bishops in the afternoon, the Pope urged them to foster healing and communion in order to be an example of “forgiveness and reconciling love” and stressed the importance of “healing” people’s wounds, accompanying priests, and having not only the “smell of the sheep, but the smell of God.”


Final Day

On his final day in Burma, the Pope urged young people to be “authentic” messengers of the Good News, to be “missionary disciples” to those who haven’t heard of Jesus, to be unafraid to “make a ruckus, to ask questions that make people think” and to become “fishers of men.”

The organizers of the papal visit said they were very satisfied with the visit. Salesian Father Mariano Soe Naing, spokesman for Burma’s bishops’ conference, welcomed the fact there was “no hostility” by the Burmese people. Many Buddhist and denominational Christians hosted Catholics who had traveled long distances to Yangon for the papal Mass.

“They opened their houses these past three days,” Father Soe said, adding that, despite the traffic inconvenience, “no one complained.”

“We have been very happy with this visit,” he said.

It has been a “missionary journey of peace and love,” said Bishop Lian Khen Thang of Kalay. “The Holy Father wants a healing process,” he said, but reminded reporters that “what we say, we must do in practice, and share the suffering and burdens of one another.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.