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Women walk past a poster welcoming the Pope Francis's apostolic visit in front of Saint Anthony's Parish in Yangon, Myanmar, 26 November 2017. EPA-EFE/LYNN BO BO
Women walk past a poster welcoming the Pope Francis's apostolic visit in front of Saint Anthony's Parish in Yangon, Myanmar, 26 November 2017. EPA-EFE/LYNN BO BO

Pope Francis Goes East

Pope Francis arrived today in Myanmar in a delicate diplomatic mission, as thousands of stateless Muslims have fled the atrocities at the hands of the military.

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Pope Francis arrived on Monday in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar - for the first visit by a Pope to the country, after Holy See-Myanmar diplomatic relations were established earlier this year.

The Pope has no engagements on the first day, but he is expected to meet tomorrow with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and hold an interfaith dialogue with Myanmar religious leaders at the archdiocesan headquarters. He will then continue his trip to Bangladesh.

The visit of Pope Francis to Myanmar and Bangladesh coincides with the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the two countries after the Myanmar military carried out operations against the Muslim-minority Rohingya in the western state of Rakhine.

Pope Francis, in line with his social commitment, has already expressed his worries about the Rohingya crisis. On August 27, two days after thousands of Burmese muslims began to flee to Bangladesh, Pope Francis went out to the balcony of the Vatican and expressed his solidarity to the "Rohingya brothers" "and denounced the persecution they suffered, as reported in El País.

The military operation - which has killed hundreds of people and led to multiple rapes, burning of villages as well as crops since the end of August - has forced more than 620,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.

Two days before his trip to Asia, the local Catholic authorities in Myanmar suggested the Pope that he lacked information and advised him not to use the word "rohingya" to avoid offending the state authorities of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Although none of these countries has a catholic majority  (Myanmar is mainly Buddhist and Bangladesh is mainly Muslim), both hold a high strategic value in the current Vatican geopolitics, according to El País.

According to some observers, the Pope is likely to act as a mediator for the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh, which was labeled by the United Nations as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." 

The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Myanmar, Bishop Felix Lian Khen Thang, did not deny the Pope's possible role in mediation.

The holy father can accelerate the reconciliation process between the two parties, the Myanmar bishop told Efe.

The US Catholic church has also taken a precautionary position. Rev. Thomas K.Reese, comissioner of the United States Comission on International Religious Freedom, said the pope “risks either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” as reported in The NY Times.  Myanmar is listed as one of the worst countries in that category, according to Reese's organization.

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