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Pope lands in Myanmar, set to meet army chief

  • Published at 03:23 pm November 27th, 2017
  • Last updated at 05:51 pm November 27th, 2017
Pope lands in Myanmar, set to meet army chief

Pope Francis arrived in mainly Buddhist Myanmar on Monday where he was set to meet army chief Min Aung Hlaing, the man accused of overseeing a brutal campaign to drive out the country's Rohingya minority.

The 80-year-old pontiff, the first to travel to Myanmar, was welcomed at the airport by children from different minority groups in bright, bejewelled clothes, who gave him flowers and received a papal embrace in return.

Nuns in white habits were among the devotees who have travelled from across the country in his honour, waving flags as his motorcade swept past the golden Shwedagon Pagoda to the archbishop's residence in downtown Yangon, where the pope will stay on Monday night.

But these joyful scenes were in stark contrast to the gravity of the main issue that frames his trip.

Myanmar's military stands accused of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya.

'A few seconds'

On Tuesday, Francis will meet civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose lustre has faded because of her failure to speak up publicly for the Rohingya.

His speeches will be scrutinised by Buddhist hardliners for any mention of the word "Rohingya", an incendiary term in a country where the Muslim group are reviled and labelled "Bengalis," alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Speaking shortly before he left Rome, the pontiff said: "I ask you to be with me in prayer so that, for these peoples, my presence is a sign of affinity and hope."

Myanmar's estimated 700,000 Catholics make up just over one percent of the country's 51 million people and are scattered in far-flung corners of the nation, many of them roiled by conflict.

Around 200,000 Catholics are pouring into Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon ahead of a huge open-air mass on Wednesday.

Prayers for peace

The Rohingya crisis looms large over the pope's visit.

The army, which ran the country with an iron fist for nearly half a century, insists its Rakhine operation was a proportionate response to Rohingya "terrorists" who raided police posts in late August, killing at least a dozen officers.

But rights groups, the UN and the US have accused the army of using its operation as cover to drive out a minority it has oppressed for decades.

The deluge of desperate refugees arriving in Bangladesh has carried with them accounts of murder, rape and arson at the hands of troops and hardline Buddhist mobs.

Days before the pope's visit, Myanmar and Bangladesh inked a deal vowing to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees in two months.

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