Pope Francis appeals to Myanmar Buddhist clergy to overcome ‘prejudice and hatred’
The pontiff said many Myanmar people ‘bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible’
Pope Francis called on Myanmar’s top Buddhist monks to conquer “prejudice and hatred” in a country ravaged by communal divisions, after holding the nation’s first-ever papal mass attended by 150,000 Catholics on Wednesday.
The pontiff’s four-day visit has so far been marked by his avoidance in public of mentioning the crisis in northern Rakhine state and Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim community.
Francis has previously defended the Muslim group, whom the UN and US say are victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign by Myanmar’s military that has driven 620,000 of them into Bangladesh since late August.
“If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred,” the pope told the orange-robed monks of Myanmar’s highest Buddhist body, called the Sangha Maha Nayka.
Radical monks have played a key role in fanning Islamaphobia in Myanmar and hardening attitudes towards the Rohingya.
In recent months the Sangha has moved to rein them in, especially in banning sermons by Wirathu – a monk whose vitriolic rants were widely disseminated via social media.
Welcoming the pope Sangha chairman, Kumarabhivamsa, who oversees Myanmar’s estimated 600,000 monks, expressed sadness at “extremism and terrorism” conducted in the name of religion.
Earlier on Wednesday the pope delivered a message of forgiveness in an open-air mass before a sea of Catholics in Yangon, many wearing colourful costumes from the country’s myriad ethnic groups.
“I never dreamed I would see him in my lifetime,” said Meo, an 81-year-old from the Akha minority in Shan state.
“I can see that the Church here is alive,” he said of a Catholic community numbering around 700,000 – a tiny fraction of the country’s 51 million people.
He noted that many Myanmar people “bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible”. But he urged his audience to forgo anger and respond with “forgiveness and compassion”.
His visit has been as much political as religious in a country on the defensive after the global outrage over the plight of the Rohingya.
He held private talks with de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who are part of a power-sharing arrangement.
His caution so far will bring relief to Myanmar’s Catholic leaders, who are concerned about backlash from Buddhist hardliners. Even the mention of the name Rohingya is incendiary to many Buddhists, who deny the group are a minority, insisting they are illegal “Bengali” immigrants.
Reactions to the pope’s handling of the issue have been mixed, with some Rohingya expressing disappointment that he did not directly confront his hosts in public on their suffering or even mention their name.
Hardline nationalist Buddhists swiftly claimed his visit as a victory.
“We worried before he came here that he would talk about the Rohingya issue,” said Sithu Myint, a member of Buddhist nationalist force. “We thank him for not using the word ‘Rohingya’ … his speech about Myanmar was good.”
Firebrand monks, including the notorious Wirathu, stayed silent in the run-up to the pope’s visit, but have previously claimed the Rohingya exodus as a feather in their cap in their campaign to repel what they say is Islamic infiltration.