Pope Francis called on the people of Burma on Wednesday to embrace peace and reconciliation as their country emerges from nearly five decades of military rule still riven by ethnic conflicts and communal strife.
The pope made his appeal at an open-air mass in Yangon on the third day of a visit fraught with diplomatic risk over a military crackdown that has triggered the flight of about 625,000 Muslim Rohingya from the predominantly Buddhist country.
In a speech on Tuesday, he did not use the highly charged term “Rohingya,” following the advice of Vatican insiders who feared it could set off a diplomatic incident and turn Burma’s military and government against minority Christians.
However, his call for justice, human rights and respect for all were widely seen as applicable to the Rohingya, who are not recognised as citizens or as members of a distinct ethnic group.
The mass exodus from Rakhine state to the southern tip of Bangladesh began at the end of August when the military launched a counter-offensive in response to Rohingya militant attacks on an army base and police security posts.
Scores of Rohingya villages were burnt to the ground, and refugees told of killings and rapes. The United States said last week that the military’s campaign included “horrendous atrocities” aimed at “ethnic cleansing.”
Burma’s military has denied all accusations of murder, rape and forced displacement.
Only about 700,000 of Burma’s 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands of them travelled from far and wide to Yangon to see the pope, and many attended Wednesday’s mass on the grounds of what had been a racecourse during British colonial times.
Among the tens of thousands there were priests, nuns, diplomats, leaders of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy, and members of ethnic groups in traditional garb who sang songs and waved Burmese and Vatican flags as they waited for the pope.
“We may never get such a chance again. The pope lives in Rome and we can’t afford to go there,” said Bo Khin, 45, a teacher who travelled on a truck to Yangon with a group of 15 relatives from Mandalay. “We feel very happy, joyful that he visited us in Myanmar.”
Bells chimed as Francis arrived. Standing in the back of a white truck, he smiled, waved at the crowd and looked relaxed as he headed to a pagoda-style canopy to celebrate mass.
In his homily, he called on the country’s people to “anoint every hurt and every painful memory” and promote “the reconciliation and peace that God wants to reign in every human heart and in every community.”
“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” he said, urging them to shun temptation to seek healing from anger and revenge.
Prayers were then read by members of the congregation in the Shan, Chin, Karen, Kachin and Kayan languages.
The prayer in Karen read: “For the leaders of Myanmar, that they may always foster peace and reconciliation through dialogue and understanding, thus promoting an end to conflict in the states of Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan, we pray to the lord.”
When she came to power in 2016, Nobel peace laureate and longtime champion of democracy Suu Kyi said her number one priority was ending multiple ethnic conflicts that have kept Burma in a state of near-perpetual civil war since independence in 1948.
That goal remains elusive and, although Suu Kyi remains popular at home, she has faced a barrage of international criticism in recent weeks for expressing doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failing to condemn the military.
Although Suu Kyi formed Burma’s first civilian government in half a century, her defenders say she is hamstrung by a constitution written by the military that left the army in control of security and much of the apparatus of the state.
Vatican sources say some in the Holy See believe the pope’s trip to Burma was decided too hastily after full diplomatic ties were established in May during a visit by Suu Kyi.
Francis leaves on Thursday for Bangladesh, where he will meet a group of Rohingya refugees in the capital, Dhaka.