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Pope to lead huge mass for Myanmar Catholics

  • Published at 08:26 am November 29th, 2017
Pope to lead huge mass for Myanmar Catholics
Pope Francis will lead an open-air mass on Wednesday for some 200,000 Catholics in Myanmar, who have poured into Yangon for a papal visit so far framed by his sidestepping of the Rohingya crisis. Excitement has been building for months among the throngs of pilgrims from across the country expected to join the colourful celebration of Myanmar's ethnic diversity in the commercial capital. The pope will wind through the crowds in a white 'popemobile' to greet his followers at close-quarters before conducting a ceremony due to start at 08:30 local time (02:00 GMT) on the third day of his visit. The trip has so far been more political than religious. Francis has held private talks with both civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing.
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  It comes as the country feels under siege from the international community over the plight of its Rohingya Muslim community, who are shunned by many of the majority-Buddhist population. The pope avoided mentioning the crisis -- or the Rohingya -- directly at his only public speech so far in the country's capital on Tuesday, where he took the stage with Suu Kyi. He called simply for "respect for rights and justice" while Suu Kyi stated that Myanmar's aims were "protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all." A military crackdown has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya over the last three months to flee their homes in northern Rakhine state to what is now the biggest refugee camp in the world in neighbouring Bangladesh. The army has justified the campaign as a proportionate retaliation for attacks by hardline Rohingya militants in August.
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  But the UN and the US have labelled it ethnic cleansing and rights groups accuse the military of crimes against humanity with refugees recounting consistent reports of murder, rape and arson. This is the first ever papal visit to the country although there have been Catholics in Myanmar for over 500 years. Today they number an estimated 700,000 -- just over 1% of the population -- and generally enjoy good relations with the Buddhist majority. In the last three years, the Vatican has canonized Myanmar's first saint and named its first cardinal before full diplomatic ties were established in May this year. Pilgrims arriving in Yangon for Wednesday's mass have been bedding down wherever they can -- even the graveyards of churches have turned into massive dormitories. "I can't say enough how happy I am," Pauline Soe Thandar, 26, told AFP as she waited for her parents to arrive from out of town before heading to the stadium. "I know the pope will share his loving kindness and valuable words to make all of us peaceful."