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Pope Francis met leaders of several faiths in majority-Buddhist Burma on Tuesday, stressing the importance of “unity in diversity” but making no mention the Rohingya Muslims who have fled en masse to Bangladesh after a military crackdown.
The pope held private talks with Burma’s military chief in Yangon on Monday, the first day of a visit fraught with tension after the United States accused the Southeast Asian nation of “ethnic cleansing” against its Muslim Rohingya people.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church will also travel to Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has dubbed “crimes against humanity.”
Burma’s military has denied accusations of murder, rape, torture and forced displacement that have been made against it.
“Unity is always a product of diversity,” Francis told leaders of the Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Christian faiths in Yangon, according to Vatican officials who gave a briefing on the 40-minute meeting.
“Everyone has their values, their riches as well as their differences, as each religion has its riches, its traditions, its riches to share. And this can only happen if we live in peace, and peace is constructed in a chorus of differences.”
Aye Lwin, a prominent Muslim leader who was at the meeting, told Reuters he had asked the pope to appeal to Burma’s political leaders “to rescue the religion that we cherish, which could be hijacked by a hidden agenda.”
Only about 700,000 of Burma’s 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands of them have travelled from far and wide to see him and more than 150,000 people have registered for a mass that Francis will say in Yangon on Wednesday.
The pope was later flying to the capital Naypyidaw, where he will meet government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and democracy champion who has faced criticism from around the globe because she has expressed doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failed to condemn the military.
His trip is so delicate that some papal advisers have warned Francis against even saying the word “Rohingya,” lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the country’s military and government against minority Christians.
The pope is due to deliver a speech after meeting Suu Kyi.
The Rohingya exodus from Rakhine State to Bangladesh began after 25 August, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Burma Army launched a counter-offensive.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week called the military operation “ethnic cleansing” and threatened targeted sanctions for “horrendous atrocities.”
Burma’s government has denied most of the accusations made against it, and the army says its own investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.
Burma does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens nor as members of a distinct ethnic group with their own identity, and it even rejects the term “Rohingya” and its use.
Many people in Burma instead refer to members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine State as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Francis is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on the second leg of his trip.
Vatican sources say some in the Holy See believe the trip was decided too hastily after full diplomatic ties were established in May during a visit by Suu Kyi.
The pope has already used the word Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year.
A hardline group of Buddhist monks, previously known as Ma Ba Tha, said on Monday it welcomed the pope’s visit but warned, without elaborating, of “a response” if he spoke openly about the Rohingya.