Pope Francis called on high-level Buddhist monks in Myanmar on Wednesday to overcome “prejudice and hatred” during a four-day visit to the Southeast Asian country where he has been both criticized and defended for not addressing the Rohingya crisis.
“If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice, and hatred,” the pontiff told members of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na), a government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks that oversees and regulates the country’s estimated 600,000-strong Buddhist clergy, in Yangon.
As in remarks following a meeting with the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, Pope Francis refrained from publicly using the term “Rohingya,” members of a Muslim minority group who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are referred to disparagingly as “Bengalis” in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
The pope also urged respect between Catholics and Buddhists in the country.
“Our meeting is an important occasion to renew and strengthen the bonds of friendship and respect between Buddhists and Catholics,” Pope Francis said. “It is also an opportunity for us to affirm a commitment to peace, respect for human dignity, and justice for every man and woman.”
The pontiff praised the ongoing work of the Panglong Conference, a peace initiative spearheaded by Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to end decades of civil wars between various armed ethnic groups and the government military.
Ma Ha Na Chairman Buddanta Kumarabhivamsa, who welcomed Pope Francis, said all religions have a duty to create a harmonious society through their teachings, and to reject terrorism and extremism conducted in the name of religion.
The pope’s words — or lack of them — drew mixed reactions from both inside and outside the country which has been reeling in recent months from a violent military crackdown in northern Rakhine state targeting the Rohingya following deadly attacks by a Muslim military group in late August.
Some of the more than 620,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh durng the violence have accused soldiers of summary executions, torture, arson, and rape — charges that the Myanmar government and army have denied. The United Nations, rights groups, and Western nations like the United States have said that the situation amounts to ethnic cleansing.
On Monday, Myanmar’s military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told the pope that there was no religious or ethnic discrimination in Myanmar, even though both officials and civilians alike have discriminated against the Rohingya for decades, denying them citizenship and access to basic services.
Though Pope Francis has been an outspoken critic of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, he has refrained from publicly broaching the subject during his four-day visit to the country which ends on Thursday.
“The pope encouraged us to respond with peace and compassion,” said Khon Jar, a Catholic from northern Myanmar’s Kachin state.
“The government also should realize commitments it has made to the pope,” she said. “For example, the army chief told the pope that there is no religious discrimination in Myanmar. If he can keep his own word, then we can hope to end the religious conflicts.”
Some monks who are members of the ultranationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha routinely use hate speech to promulgate anti-Muslim sentiment, sparking ethnic and religious tensions that have resulted in violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities.
Ma Ha Na has undertaken recent measures to reduce the vitriol by prohibiting the notorious firebrand monk Wirathu from giving sermons for a year.
On Nov. 21, a court in Yangon sentenced the prominent Buddhist abbot Parmaukkha from Ma Ba Tha to one month in prison for inciting unrest during a protest against the U.S. govenrment's use of the word "Rohingya" outside the American embassy last year.
“Myanmar people originally accepted diversity,” said Sai Thiha Kyaw, an ethnic Shan lawmaker. “It’s the nature of Myanmar.”
“But now we have conflicts unnecessarily because of some people who are manipulating religion in their own political interest and are creating conflict and hatred through diversity,” he said. “Therefore, I believe that the pope has come here to remind us to stick to our original good will.”
Aye Lwin, chief convener for the Islamic Centre of Myanmar and a founding member of Religions for Peace Myanmar, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that although the Rakhine issue is an internal affair that must be addressed by the country’s leaders and its people, Pope Francis’ words of encouragement are welcome.
“However, good advice can be delivered to Myanmar’s leaders and people by their best friends like the Pope,” said Aye Lwin, who was also a member of the government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. “The pope’s words are very helpful for Myanmar and can serve as energy for the soul and morale encouragement for the Myanmar people.”
The commission, headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, was tasked with examining the religious and ethnic divisions between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state. The body’s final report, issued in late August, advised the government to review the country’s Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming Myanmar citizens, and end restrictions on the Muslim minority group to prevent further violence in beleaguered region.
Concerning the pope’s restraint from mentioning the word “Rohingya,” which is not recognized by the Myanmar government or military, papal biographer Austen Ivereigh suggested to the British newspaper The Times that Francis may have used it during private discussions with officials.
“Francis is on a diplomatic mission to build a relationship between Myanmar and the world through the Holy See, and to help create a pluralistic society,” he was quoted as saying.
“That said, he has used the word before; he is just avoiding using it publicly while he is there,” he said. “And there is no ruling out he used it in private, given most of the action on the trip is behind closed doors, judging by the few public addresses on the itinerary.”
Reported by Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.