YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Catholic authorities in Myanmar and the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will visit Myanmar and Bangladesh starting at the end of November.
The announcement on Monday (Aug. 28) by the Vatican’s press office said the pope will visit the cities of Yangon and Naypyitaw, the capital, during his Nov. 27-30 trip to Myanmar, and Dhaka during his Nov. 30-Dec. 2 visit to Bangladesh.
It will be the first trip by a pope to Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist. Pope John Paul II in 1986 visited Bangladesh, a mainly Muslim country.
The pope’s visit to Myanmar comes at a delicate time, with communal tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority flaring last week with clashes between the army and Rohingya insurgents. Advocates from the Rohingya say the army is attacking Rohingya villages and driving thousands to flee.
Prejudice against the Rohingya is widespread and long-standing and has been behind previous large-scale violence. There are about 1 million Rohingya in the western state of Rakhine, but they are treated as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship.
On Sunday, Pope Francis decried persecution of the Rohingya and prayed that they receive “full rights.” He referred to “sad news about the persecution of the religious minority of our Rohingya brothers” and asked the faithful in St. Peter’s Square to pray that God “saves them” and they receive help.
He has expressed his concern for the Rohingya on several previous occasions.
The pope is likely to receive criticism from several sides for his plan to visit Myanmar. Advocates for the Rohingya may feel his visit lends legitimacy to a government some believe is committing genocide, while the vocal Buddhist nationalist community that feels the Rohingya don’t belong in the country will be unhappy with his sympathy for them.
The announcement of the visit by the Catholic bishops of Myanmar said the government there “has extended a warm welcome with the invitation to the Holy Father, hoping his presence will further peace and harmony of all people.” It said he will meet government leaders along with youth, civil society and religious leaders, in addition to discharging pastoral duties for the local Catholic community.
The Vatican and Myanmar in May agreed to establish diplomatic relations, making the announcement on the same day that the pope met with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s top civilian leader.
The Vatican in its announcement said the motto of the pope’s trip to Myanmar is love and peace, reflecting the pope’s intention to promote both during his visit.
“The common ground of Christianity and Buddhism is love,” the Vatican said. “It is this concept that creates mutual respect and acceptance between the Christians and the Buddhists.”
The theme of the visit to Bangladesh will be peace and harmony “among religions, cultures, peoples, society, history, heritage and traditions,” the Vatican said.
The peace part of the motto refers to “peace experienced, as well as aspired in future with a vision of integrated human and spiritual development in Bangladesh,” it said.
Bangladesh has been troubled by political instability and a nascent jihadist movement.
There are about 600,000 Catholics in Myanmar, roughly 1 percent of the 58 million population, while Bangladesh’s Catholic community numbers about 280,000, less than a quarter of 1 percent of a population estimated to be as much as 150 million.
(Associated Press writer Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report)