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Pope Francis arrives in Myanmar amid Rohingya crisis

Pope Francis previously condemned the atrocities committed against the Rohingya [Max Rossi/Reuters]

Pope Francis has arrived in Myanmar on his first trip to the Southeast Asian nation, where tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees have faced brutal military crackdown in the past three months.

His trip comes as the Myanmar government is accused of "ethnically cleansing" its Rohingya Muslim minority, more than 600,000 of whom have taken shelter in neighboring Bangladesh.

The 80-year-old leader of Roman Catholic Church who has spoken against "persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters" in the past has been advised not use the word Rohingya.

On his first day in Myanmar, Francis met general Min Aung Hlaing, a senior army commander who is in part behind the persecution of the Rohingya's in Myanmar.

In a post on his Facebook page, Hlaing wrote that he told the Pope that there was no religious discrimination in the country.

Neither Francis nor general Hliang clarified if the Rohingya issue was discussed.

Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?

Ro Mayyu Ali, a Rohingya Muslim who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in September, said he hoped the pope would use his visit to speak up for the persecuted minority.

"I will never forget the moment you stopped your white popemobile and kissed the separation wall, a barrier between Palestine and Israel, during your visit to Bethlehem in 2014. It was a massive political statement," Ali told Al Jazeera.

"I hope you use this opportunity to use speak up for some of the 620,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh and witnessed gang rape, mass killing, and seen their children burned alive."

Francis has previously condemned the atrocities, including mass killings and gang rapes, committed against the Muslim minority. He is also expected to meet with refugees in the coming days.

"Rohingya is a very sensitive topic, it is a very sensitive word here in Myanmar, particularly when it comes to dealing with the government," said Al Jazeera's Scott Heidler, reporting from outside the archbishop's house in the country's largest city of Yangon.

"The archbishop himself has advised the pope not to use that term here because it is something the government doesn't recognise," Heidler added.

Ethnic cleansing

According to the United Nations, security forces in Myanmar reportedly burned down entire villages and opened fire at people fleeing burning homes.

Myanmar's ruling party has objected to the use of the term "Rohingya" to identify the mostly Muslim minority, demanding that they be called "Bengalis" despite the persecuted group living there for generations.

Is it safe for Rohingya refugees to return to Rakhine?

"But what a lot of people are saying here…what they really want is for him [Francis] to focus on peace in this nation," the Al Jazeera correspondent said.

"Obviously, the international community expects him to focus on the Rohingya issue because that is a crisis viewed by the world…as ethnic cleansing," he said.

Besides senior general Hliang, the pontiff is also expected to meet Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has blamed the Rohingya for the crisis.

The UN, as well as the United States, have said the violent actions taken by Myanmar's armed forces and "local vigilantes" amount to "ethnic cleansing" against its Rohingya minority.

In 2012, Myanmar's armed forces began to force Rohingya into refugee camps, both in Rakhine state and across the border into Bangladesh.

The ongoing crisis is being described as the world's biggest forced exodus this year.

Last week Bangladesh government signed a deal with Myanmar on the repatriation of Rohingya but details of the deal have still not been made public.


(c) 2017 Al Jazeera

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