The Vatican and Burma established full diplomatic relations on Thursday, minutes after Pope Francis met with the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The surprise move means that the Vatican will have much more diplomatic influence in Burma, which is facing international scrutiny over atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
There are about 700,000 Catholics in Burma, according to the country’s cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, out of a total population of some 51.4 million, the majority of whom are Buddhist.
The Vatican had previously been represented in Burma by an apostolic delegate to the local church who was based in Thailand. The move means the Vatican and Burma will each appoint a full-fledged ambassador.
The announcement came shortly after Pope Francis met Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Burma’s civilian government and also its foreign minister.
Suu Kyi assumed power in 2016 following a landslide election win after Burma’s former military leaders initiated a political transition.
The Nobel Peace laureate talked privately with the pope for about half an hour in his study in the Apostolic Palace.
In February, Francis issued a stinging criticism of the treatment of the Rohingya, saying they had been tortured and killed simply because they wanted to live their culture and Muslim faith.
On Thursday, Francis gave Suu Kyi a copy of his 2017 message for the Church’s World Day of Peace, whose title is “Non-violence: a style of politics for peace.”
His remarks in February came shortly after a UN report that said security forces in the north of the country had carried out mass killings, gang rapes and had burned villages.
On Tuesday, the European Union clashed with Suu Kyi by publicly supporting an international mission to look into alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya.
The EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini, speaking at a news conference with Suu Kyi, said an agreed resolution of the UN Human Rights Council would help clear up uncertainty about allegations of killings, torture and rape against the Rohingya.
On the basis of that resolution, the top United Nations human rights body will send an international fact-finding mission to Burma despite Suu Kyi’s reservations.
She said Burma was “disassociating” itself from the resolution.