Pope Francis, who is on a historic visit to Myanmar, has called for “justice” and respect for the human rights of ethnic groups, a thinly-veiled reference to the minority Muslim Rohingya who have been facing state-sponsored violence in the Southeast Asian country.
Peace can only be achieved through “justice and a respect for human rights,” the Pope said in a Tuesday speech.
He also called for “respect for each ethnic group and its identity.”
The pope arrived in Myanmar on Monday.
Pope Francis has arrived in Myanmar for a six-day visit that will later take him to Bangladesh.
Shortly after the pope’s arrival, Myanmar’s military chief paid him an unscheduled visit.
General Min Aung Hlaing later said that he had told the pontiff “there’s no religious discrimination in Myanmar,” blatantly denying the heavily-documented cases of horrific violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the Southeast Asian country.
The general is in charge of the country’s internationally-condemned military crackdown on ethnic Muslims in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. The United Nations (UN) has described that campaign as similar to “textbook ethnic cleansing.”
More than 600,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group have been forced to flee the state-sponsored violence to Bangladesh.
Myanmar is estimated to have about 700,000 Christians, which is another minority group in the country.
The pontiff, who has in the past used the term “Rohingya brothers and sisters,” was reportedly advised not to use the term “Rohingya” — which means a resident of Rakhine — during his stay in Myanmar. That advice was reportedly given by Myanmar’s sole Catholic cardinal so as not to invoke the rage of the country’s officials and Buddhist establishment against the minority Catholics.
In his Tuesday speech, Pope Francis avoided the term “Rohingya” and did not even directly speak about the persecution of the Muslims in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s officials use the term “Bengali” for the Rohingya. The group, which has lived in Myanmar for decades, has been denied citizenship in both Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh.
Prominent human rights groups have called on international agencies to monitor the safe return of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar.
On Tuesday, the Pope also met with Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Suu Kyi has refused to take any action to end the crackdown on the Muslim group. She came to power in 2016 after five decades of rule by a junta.
Meanwhile, the Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh have voiced sorrow that the Pope has no decision to visit them there.
Refugees in the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh say they were “disappointed” by Pope Franceis’ schedule, who after visiting Myanmar is due in Dhaka but not at their camp.