Pope Francis is meeting Tuesday with Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a day after the country’s military chief said he told the pontiff that there is “no religious discrimination” in Myanmar.
The United Nations and the United States have accused Myanmar’s military of “ethnic cleansing” in violence against Rohingya Muslims, and Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has faced criticism for her response to the crisis.
“We can’t say whether it has happened or not,” she said last week when asked about rights abuses. “As a responsibility of the government, we have to make sure that it won’t happen.”
Pope Francis met with the military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, on Monday as he began his trip to the southeast Asian country to discuss the violence in Rakhine state that has caused over 620,000 Rohingya to flee into neighboring Bangladesh.
“Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all,” Min Aung Hlaing said in a Facebook post by his office. “Likewise our military too… (it) performs for the peace and stability of the country.”
After the 15 minute meeting, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the two “discussed the great responsibility of authorities of the country in this time of transition” before exchanging gifts.
Thousands of Myanmar’s nearly 700,000 Catholics traveled to greet the Pope as he landed in Yangon, and more than 150,000 have registered to attend a Mass he will hold on Wednesday, according to Catholic Myanmar Church spokesman Mariano Soe Naing.
Myanmar’s Catholic Church has publicly urged Francis to avoid using the term “Rohingya,” which is shunned by many locally because the ethnic group is not a recognized minority in the country.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has called the Rohingya Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country his “brothers and sisters,” speaking out against violence in the troubled Rakhine state.
Burke didn’t say if Francis used the term in his meeting with the general.
The pontiff’s schedule does not include a visit to a refugee camp, but he is expected to meet with a small group of Rohingya in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.
In recent weeks, Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled violence in Rakhine state, according to officials from both countries.
But the U.N. refugee agency spokesperson said conditions there are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns.