Yangon: Pope Francis called on Myanmar’s top Buddhist monks to conquer “prejudice and hatred" in a country ravaged by communal divisions, after holding the nation’s first-ever papal mass attended by 150,000 Catholics on Wednesday.
The pontiff’s four-day visit has so far been marked by his avoidance in public of the crisis in northern Rakhine state and Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim community.
Francis has previously spoken out strongly in defence of the Muslim group, whom the UN and US say are victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign by Myanmar’s military that has driven 620,000 of them into Bangladesh since late August.
“If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred," the pope told the orange-robed monks of Myanmar’s highest Buddhist body, called the Sangha Maha Nayka.
Radical monks have played a key role in fanning Islamaphobia in Myanmar and hardening attitudes towards the Rohingya.
In recent months the Sangha has moved to rein them in, especially in banning sermons by Wirathu—a monk whose vitriolic rants were widely disseminated via social media.
Welcoming the pope Sangha chairman, Kumarabhivamsa, who oversees Myanmar’s estimated 600,000 monks, expressed sadness at “extremism and terrorism" conducted in the name of religion.
Earlier on Wednesday the pope delivered a message of forgiveness in an open-air mass before a sea of Catholics in Yangon, many wearing colourful costumes from the country’s myriad ethnic groups.
“I never dreamed I would see him in my lifetime," said Meo, an 81-year-old from the Akha minority in Shan state.
A choir of Myanmar nuns sang in Latin, accompanied by organ music, as Francis delivered a homily urging compassion—opening his speech with “minglabar", Burmese for “hello".
“I can see that the Church here is alive," he said of a Catholic community numbering around 700,000—a tiny fraction of the country’s 51 million people.
The pontiff noted that many Myanmar people “bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible". But he urged his audience to forgo anger and respond with “forgiveness and compassion".
His visit has been as much political as religious in a country on the defensive after the global outrage over the plight of the Rohingya.
He held private talks with both civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who are part of a delicate power-sharing arrangement as the country emerges from decades of junta rule.
His caution so far will bring relief to Myanmar’s Catholic leaders, who had urged the pontiff not to wade into the treacherous issue for fear of sparking a backlash from Buddhist hardliners.
Even the mention of the name Rohingya is incendiary to many among the majority-Buddhist population, who deny the group are a distinct minority and insist on calling them “Bengalis".
Reactions to the pope’s handling of the issue have been mixed, with some Rohingya expressing disappointment that he did not directly confront his hosts in public on their suffering or even mention their name.
But Kyaw Min, a former MP and prominent Rohingya activist, said he understood the pressures the pope was under and applauded his nuanced approach.
“He said there were some people who have been bullied and need to get their rights ... this was about the Rohingya," Kyaw Min told AFP.
But hardline nationalist Buddhists swiftly claimed his visit as a victory.
“We worried before he came here that he would talk about the Rohingya issue," Sithu Myint, a member of Buddhist nationalist force, told AFP.
“We thank him for not using the word ‘Rohingya’... his speech about Myanmar was good."
Firebrand monks, including the notorious Wirathu, have stayed silent in the run-up to the pope’s visit, but have previously claimed the Rohingya exodus as a feather in their cap in their campaign to repel what they say is Islamic infiltration.
Less than 5% of Myanmar’s 51 million population is Muslim.