Pope Francis walks at the end of a canonisation mass for seven new saints in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican in 2016. Source: Reuters/Tony Gentile
According to Catholic media outlets, Pope Francis will undertake the first papal visit to Burma (Myanmar) in November, where he will focus on promoting the rights of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim community.
While news of the papal visit has not been officially announced, leaks from sources in the Vatican have confirmed a planned historical visit to Burma and Bangladesh, reported the Union of Catholic Asian News on Monday.
The Pope reportedly received a personal invite from Burma’s President Htin Kyaw, a decision which has led to an angry backlash among hardline Buddhist and ultranationalist groups on social media.
He will visit the capital Naypyidaw to meet with senior government figures before travelling to the country’s largest city Yangon, but will not go to the restive Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live.
While Burma and Bangladesh have relatively small Catholic communities, the Pope has long been a vocal critic of the Burmese government for its failure to protect Rohingya Muslims from violence and persecution.
Rohingya villagers watch as international media visit Maung Hna Ma village, Buthidaung township, in northern Rakhine state, Burma, on July 14, 2017. Source: Reuters/Simon Lewis
In 2015, the Pope called persecution of Rohingya akin to a “war” against Muslims in Burma.
More than 75,000 people are said to have fled across the Bangladeshi border since clashes with the military broke out in October 2016, leading to a harsh crackdown by authorities.
Earlier this year, he said Rohingya were “peaceful people, and they are our brothers and sisters,” calling for the Burmese regime to let them “live their culture and their Muslim faith.”
Pope Francis also created the first-ever Catholic cardinals for Burma and Bangladesh.
“The Catholic bishops invited Pope Francis before the 500th anniversary of Catholicism in Myanmar in late 2014,” Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam told UCA News. There are roughly 700,000 Catholics in Burma.
“Some improvements have occurred such as diplomatic relations between Burma and Vatican plus the appointment of an apostolic nuncio.”
The Vatican established full diplomatic relations with Burma in May, after the Pope met with the country’s State Counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Crux’s correspondent in the Vatican first reported the possibility of Francis cancelling his planned trip to India in place of a visit to Burma and Bangladesh late last month.
(c) 2017 Asian Corespondent