Pope’s visit to Myanmar raises fears of violence if he mentions the Rohingya | World news

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The signs are cropping up outside the churches: “A heartiest welcome to the Pope”; “Viva Papa Francesco”. In the colonial-era cathedral, pews are being dusted off and fences painted.

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.

The Rohingya are Muslims who live in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. They are often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority”. 

Nearly all of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya live in the western coastal state of Rakhine. The government does not recognise them as citizens, effectively rendering them stateless.

In 2012, deadly clashes with Buddhists in Rakhine caused 140,000 Rohingya to flee their homes. Many have since paid people smugglers to take them on dangerous sea voyages to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, where they are often exploited.

Extremist nationalist movements insist the group are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although the Rohingya say they are native to Rakhine state.

Rights groups accuse Myanmar authorities of ethnic cleansing, systematically forcing Rohingya from the country through violence and persecution, a charge the government has denied.

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.

Catholics from Kachin state make a two-day train journey from Myitkyina to Yangon to see Pope Francis

Catholics from Kachin state on their two-day train journey from Myitkyina to Yangon to see Pope Francis. Photograph: Reuters

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.

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