Pope urges reconciliation – Thousands attend Mass in Yangon

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Pope Francis poses for a group photo with children as he arrives at St Mary’s Cathedral for a meeting with the bishops of Myanmar in Yangon on Nov 29. (AFP)

YANGON, Nov 29, (RTRS): Pope Francis on Wednesday urged Myanmar’s top Buddhist monks to reconcile people of different ethnicities and religions as their country emerges from nearly five decades of military rule still riven by ethnic confl icts and communal strife.

That echoed a call for peace he made at a Mass earlier on the third day of a visit fraught with diplomatic risk over a military crackdown that has triggered the flight of about 625,000 Muslim Rohingya from the predominantly Buddhist country. In a speech on Tuesday, he avoided the highly charged term ‘Rohingya’, following advice of Vatican insiders who feared it could set off a diplomatic incident and turn Myanmar’s military and government against minority Christians.

However, his call for justice, human rights and respect for all were widely seen as applicable to the Rohingya, who are not recognised as citizens or as members of a distinct ethnic group. Visiting the Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist monks in Yangon, the pope and his entourage of cardinals and bishops were ushered to an ornate chandeliered and carpeted room of gold and wood carvings with a white statue of Buddha at one end, taking off their shoes at the entrance.

In his address there, Francis called for “a common witness by religious leaders” and lamented that the “wounds of conflict, poverty and oppression persist” in many places. The meeting, he said, was an opportunity for Buddhists and the tiny Catholic community “to affirm a commitment to peace, respect for human dignity and justice for every man and woman”. “If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred,” he said.

Again, he made no reference to the exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine state to the southern tip of Bangladesh, which began at the end of August when the military responded to Rohingya militant attacks on an army base and police security posts.

Only about 700,000 of Myanmar’s 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands travelled from far and wide to see Pope Francis, and many attended Wednesday’s open-air Mass on the grounds of what was a racecourse in the Rangoon of British colonial times.

Among the tens of thousands were priests, nuns, diplomats, leaders of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy, and members of ethnic groups in traditional garb who sang and waved Myanmar and Vatican flags as they waited for the pope. Bells chimed as the Pope arrived. Standing in the back of a white truck, he smiled and waved as he headed to a pagoda-style canopy to celebrate Mass. In his homily, he called for reconciliation and peace.

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