Pope, Myanmar's leaders discuss rights of ethnic minorities

Paul Haring | Catholic News Service
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NAYPYITAW, Myanmar — The plight of the ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar's Rakhine state was front and center in speeches by Pope Francis and Aung San Suu Kyi, but neither publicly used the word Rohingya.

The next day, at a meeting with Buddhist leaders, the pope did use the word "Rohingya," whom the Myanmar government doesn't recognize as a separate ethnic group, but he insisted the meeting was an occasion "to affirm a commitment to peace, respect for human dignity and justice for every man and woman."

After private meetings Nov. 28 with Myanmarese President Htin Kyaw and Suu Kyi, the state counselor and de facto head of government, the pope and Suu Kyi gave formal speeches to government officials and diplomats gathered at the convention center in Naypyitaw, the nation's capital.

Suu Kyi, leader of the process to bring democracy to Myanmar and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, publicly acknowledged, "Of the many challenges that our government has been facing, the situation in Rakhine has most strongly captured the attention of the world. As we address long-standing issues — social, economic and political — that have eroded trust and understanding, harmony and cooperation between different communities in Rakhine, the support of our people and of good friends who only wish to see us succeed in our endeavors has been invaluable."

"The road to peace is not always smooth," she told the pope, "but it is the only way that will lead our people to their dream of a just and prosperous land that will be their refuge, their pride, their joy."

In his speech, Pope Francis was even less specific, although he repeatedly insisted that the rights of each member of society and each ethnic group must be respected. He praised the role of the United Nations and the international community in supporting peace efforts, presumably also in their condemnations of the discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority.

"The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group — none excluded — to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good," Pope Francis said.

The pope said he wanted to visit the country to strengthen the small Catholic community and "to offer a word of encouragement to all those who are working to build a just, reconciled and inclusive social order."

Myanmar's "greatest treasure," he insisted, "is its people, who have suffered greatly, and continue to suffer, from civil conflict and hostilities that have lasted all too long and created deep divisions."

Pope Francis praised Suu Kyi for convoking the "21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference," a series of meetings that began in 2016 between the government and militant groups from more than a dozen ethnic groups in Myanmar.

The Rohingya are not included in the peace process since the government does not consider them to be a Myanmar ethnic group, but rather foreigners.

Pope Francis insisted, "The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group — none excluded — to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good."

At the meeting with Buddhist leaders, the pope quoted St. Francis of Assisi and Buddha and insisted that in a land where the powerfully bonded pairing of religion and ethnicity have been used to prolong conflict, it was time for religious leaders to reclaim the greatest values and virtues of their faith traditions. As is customary, Pope Francis took off his shoes before entering the hall and walked in his black socks to his place.

The challenge of the Buddhist monks and of the Catholic clergy, the pope said, is to help their people see that patience, tolerance and respect for life are values essential to every relationship, whether with people of the same family or ethnic group or with fellow residents of a nation.

The approach, he said, is common to both faiths.

Pope Francis quoted Buddha: "Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth."

And then he pointed out how the "Prayer of St. Francis" has a similar teaching: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, let me bring pardon. ... Where there is darkness, let me bring light, and where there is sadness, joy."

"May that wisdom continue to inspire every effort to foster patience and understanding and to heal the wounds of conflict that, through the years, have divided people of different cultures, ethnicities and religious convictions," he said.

Meeting with generals

Greeted by two dozen children wearing traditional attire and by the nation's bishops, Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar Nov. 27 for a four-day visit.

The arrival ceremony at the Yangon airport was brief and led by an envoy of the president, because the formal welcome was scheduled for the next day in Naypyitaw, which has been the capital since 2005.

However, Pope Francis had a "courtesy visit" with the leaders of the nation's powerful military. The pope and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who was accompanied by three other generals and a lieutenant colonel, met that first evening in the Yangon archbishop's residence, where the pope is staying.

Although the country is transitioning from military rule to democracy, the general has the power to name a portion of the legislators and to nominate some government ministers. Although described by Vatican spokesman Greg Burke as a "courtesy visit" and not an official welcome, the visit seemed to go against the usual protocol, which would dictate that the pope's first meetings with authorities would be with the head of state and head of government.

'Spiritual GPS'

Jesus' love "is like a spiritual GPS" that guides people past the everyday obstacles of fear and pride and allows them to find their way to a relationship with God and with their neighbors, Pope Francis said.

Christ's message of "forgiveness and mercy uses a logic that not all will want to understand, and which will encounter obstacles. Yet His love, revealed on the cross is ultimately unstoppable," the pope said Nov. 29, celebrating his first public Mass in Myanmar.

According to the Vatican, 150,000 people attended the Mass at the Kyaikkasan sports ground.

Pope Francis acknowledged the sacrifices made by the people as well as the struggles Catholics face as a tiny minority in Myanmar and as citizens of a country struggling to leave violence behind and transition from military to democratic rule. 

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