Pope Francis will visit Myanmar and Bangladesh in late November, the Vatican confirmed on Monday, amid growing concern about the treatment of Myanmar's persecuted and stateless Rohingya Muslims, thousands of whom have fled to neighboring Bangladesh amid a new wave of violence in northern Rakhine state.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church will visit Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon and the administrative capital Naypyidaw on Nov. 27-30, then travel to Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka on Nov. 30-Dec. 2, the Vatican said.
The program for the visit will be published shortly, the Vatican’s statement said, but gave no other information.
Pope Francis has expressed concern about the plight of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya who live mainly in the country’s restive western Rakhine state. The government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and has denied them citizenship and access to basic services, though many have lived there for generations.
About 120,000 Rohingya live in internally displaced persons camps around Rahine’s capital Sittwe after having being forced out of their homes by deadly communal violence with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
After praying with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, Pope Francis said he was saddened by the news “of the persecution of a religious minority, our Rohingya brothers and sisters,” Catholic News Service reported.
“I would like to express my full closeness to [the Rohingya],” the pope was quoted as saying. “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.”
Rev. Soe Naing, director of social affairs at the Myanmar Catholic Federation, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the pope is visiting Myanmar as a show of support for the country’s state counselor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The Pope makes international trips every year,” he said. “This year he has invitations from 40 or 50 countries, and from among them he chose to visit Myanmar. I understand he wants to give support to Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi’s endeavors to develop the country.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, who also is Myanmar's tate counselor and foreign affairs minister, met Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican on May 4, marking the formal establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries.
There are nearly 700,000 Catholics among Buddhist-dominated Myanmar’s population of 53 million.
Roughly 90,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled to Bangladesh during a crackdown by Myanmar security forces in the northern part of Rakhine state following deadly attacks on three border guard posts in October 2016.
Some Rohingya accused security forces of committing atrocities against them, including killings, rape, torture, and arson, during the so-called security operations. The Myanmar government has denied most of the allegations.
More than 3,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25-26, fearing new atrocities in the aftermath of attacks by Muslim insurgents on 30 police outposts that left more than 100 dead, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has claimed responsibility for both the October 2016 and last week’s violence.
The Myanmar government has sent army troops into the restive townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung of northern Rakhine, where both attacks occurred.
Flood victims in Bangladesh
During Sunday’s prayers in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis also prayed for the victims of devastating floods caused by monsoon rains that have killed hundreds and displaced millions in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India, Catholic News Service reported.
“I express my closeness to all the affected populations and I pray for the victims and for all who suffer due to this calamity,” the pope was quoted as saying.
Neither the government in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which is grappling with religious and ethnic turmoil in Rakhine state, nor the government of Muslim-majority Bangladesh, has issued a response to the pontiff’s travel plans.
UCA News, a Catholic news service that covers Asia, broke the story about the pope’s plans to visit Myanmar on Aug. 7, saying that the main reason for his stop in the Southeast Asian country was to try to improve the situation of the persecuted Rohingya.
Myanmar President Htin Kyaw had invited Pope Francis for his first-ever papal visit to the country, the report said.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.