By Sarah Mac Donald - 30 August, 2017
Pope Francis will visit Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from 27 to 30 November, becoming the first pope to visit the predominantly Buddhist south east Asian country.
According to Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, the Pontiff will, after his Burmese visit, continue on to Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country, where he will stay from 30 November until 2 December.
The visits are at the invitation of the two countries’ authorities and their bishops and will take in the cities of Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar and Dhaka in Bangladesh.
News of the visit to Myanmar comes nearly four months after the Vatican and Myanmar announced they were establishing full diplomatic relations, following a meeting between Pope Francis and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who holds the role of State Counsellor and remains leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
The position of state counsellor was specially created for her after the NLD’s election victory in 2015 to get around the military-drafted constitution that bars her from the presidency. Aung San Suu Kyi also acts as foreign minister, minister of the president’s office and chair of numerous committees.
However, the news of the papal visit has been greeted with some opposition within Myanmar, with some Buddhist leaders displeased with the strong line Pope Francis has taken over the treatment of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
Last weekend, before the visit was announced, Pope Francis, in his Angelus address, expressed solidarity with the Rohingya.
Since 2012, attacks on the Muslim minority have driven hundreds of thousands into refugee camps and across the border into Bangladesh.
Most of the Rohingya population are found in Rakhine state. They have been denied citizenship in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist.
About 120,000 Rohingya are living in camps for the internally displaced near the state capital, Sittwe. A further 400,000 live in the state’s north, which is currently under martial law.
“I would like to express my full closeness to [the Rohingya],” the Pope said on Sunday. “Let us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of goodwill to help them, that they may be given full rights.”
He also prayed for the victims of monsoon floods in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. The floods have claimed the lives of over 1,200 people and displaced millions.
“I express my closeness to all the affected populations and I pray for the victims and for all who suffer due to this calamity,” Pope Francis said.
The persecution of the Rohingya, which has seen some Buddhist monks involved in attacks, is described as ethnic cleansing by UN agencies and human rights groups.
A recent outbreak of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine region between the Burmese army and Rohingya militants resulted in the deaths of 98 people.
Media are forbidden to travel to the region, but reports of atrocities by the military, including rape, murder and burning villages, have leaked over the past year.
The United Nations says more than 170,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh, in the past five years.
Aung San Suu Kyi has so far refused to publicly condemn the violence against the Rohingya. This has disappointed supporters of one of the world’s most famous prisoners of conscience, who spent 15 years under house arrest at her lakeside villa on University Avenue in Yangon.
The Nobel peace laureate has been accused by some Western critics of defending the army’s actions and of not speaking out on behalf of the long-persecuted minority.
Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader at human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said the Pope’s visit to Myanmar could be an important step towards “genuine peace, reconciliation and justice.”
“To have a worldwide Christian leader such as Pope Francis speaking out and standing in solidarity with a persecuted Muslim community sends a vital message about the importance of freedom of religion or belief and inter-religious harmony,” he said.
Separately, on Tuesday, the Vatican unveiled the two logos which will be used for the Pope’s visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The logo for his visit to Myanmar depicts Pope Francis releasing a white dove from within a heart drawn in the colours of Myanmar’s flag: yellow, green, and red.
An outline of Myanmar’s landmass sits beside the Pope within the heart, while the motto for his journey is shown above: ‘Love & Peace’.
The logo for Pope Francis’ visit to Bangladesh has coloured streamers in the shape of a dove, with a cross raised over a water lily (Bangladesh’s national flower) within it.
Above, the official motto for the Apostolic Journey, ‘Harmony and Peace’, is written in red.