Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar, is preparing for Pope Francis, whose arrival on Monday will mark the first visit of a pontiff to the Buddhist-majority nation.
But the excitement, especially among the country’s small Catholic population, is tempered by trepidation.
Myanmar stands accused of perpetrating ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state – allegations its rulers vehemently deny – and members of the Christian minority fear a strong statement from the Pope could trigger further unrest.
“Like other people, I’m afraid of what he will say about Rakhine state,” said a nervous priest named Father Paul as he swept the aisles in St Mary’s Cathedral, where the Pope is scheduled to give a mass next week. “I don’t think he will say anything,” he said.
Francis will fly into Yangon on Monday and meet Aung San Suu Kyi and commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing in the capital, Naypyitaw, the following day. He will deliver two masses in Yangon on Wednesday and Thursday, before travelling to Bangladesh to meet Rohingya refugees.
More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state since August, arriving in neighbouring Bangladesh with stories of massacres, gang rape and arson by soldiers and local Buddhists. The US, the United Nations and human rights groups have said the violence against the persecuted minority amounts to ethnic cleansing.
Francis, the first Jesuit Pope and a divisive figure whose liberal views have been met with criticism and even accusations of heresy within the church, has been a vocal advocate for the Muslim minority, calling them “our Rohingya brothers and sisters” earlier this year.
According to a source familiar with discussions, local Catholics are divided over the issue, with many sympathetic to the Rohingya but frightened that they could be the target of a nationalist backlash.
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the most prominent Catholic in the country, has advised the Pope not to use the word “Rohingya”, which most people in Myanmar reject in favour of “Bengali”, implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.