Pope Francis’ visit to Burma is significant not only because the country has a small Christian minority but also due to a contentious political situation.
Pope Francis landed in Yangon Nov. 27 for the first phase of his third tour of Asia, which will take him to both Burma (also called Myanmar) and Bangladesh. He will stay in Burma Nov. 27-30, and visit two cities before moving on to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he will stay November 30 to December 2.
Pope Francis visiting Myanmar amid violence against the Rohingya which is the largely Muslim ethnic group residing in Burma’s Rakhine State. But the Burmese government refuses to recognize the Rohingya people and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship since Burma gained independence in 1948. The critical situation has prompted the United Nation to declare the senario “an ethnic cleansing.”
In the home country facing persecution many Rohingya have fled to neighboring country Bangladesh. Millions of them are camping along the Bangladesh border as refugees. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled for Bangladesh in the past few months.
The Pope’s visit falls, as Burmese officials working out a transition to democracy after more than 50 years of military dictatorship which began to come unhinged as democratic reforms started taking root in 2011.
Pope Francis said the country’s various religious traditions and its youth will play key roles toward national reconciliation and building a better future.
Religions can play an important role in healing the emotional, spiritual and psychological wounds of years of unrest. Religious differences in Burma (a majority Buddhist country), “need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building,” he said.
He pointed to current joint efforts among religions to work together in peace efforts through education, assistance to the poor and in promoting human values. “They can help to uproot the causes of conflict, build bridges of dialogue, seek justice and be a prophetic voice for all who suffer,” he said,