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Pope Avoids Politics in Myanmar but Can’t Quiet Questions on Rohingya


By Jason Horowitz

November 29, 2017

YANGON, Myanmar — In his last full day in Myanmar, Pope Francis sought to pivot away from politics and the disappointment over his decision to avoid mentioning the persecuted Rohingya Muslims and to find safer ground in Catholic liturgy and interreligious dialogue.

But even as the pope removed his shoes to meet with monks in a pagoda and celebrated Mass at a colonial-era racetrack, his decision not to directly address one of the world’s most acute humanitarian disasters cast a pall over what the Vatican sought to portray as a historic visit of bridge-building with a fledgling democracy.

“Nobody ever said Vatican diplomacy is infallible,” the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, said at a news briefing here on Wednesday evening. He said that no one in the Vatican had second-guessed the pope’s decision to avoid mentioning the Rohingya or considered pulling the plug on the visit, which even the pope’s supporters consider a tactical blunder for a usually politically sure-footed pontiff.

“He is not afraid of minefields,” Mr. Burke said, bristling at the notion that the trip had damaged the moral authority that is the pope’s most powerful diplomatic asset.

“People are not expected to solve impossible problems,” he said. “You’ll see him going ahead and you can criticize what is said and what is not said. But the pope is not going to lose moral authority on this question here.”

Myanmar presented the pope with a treacherous diplomatic tight wire. The world expected a global figure who has championed the downtrodden to speak out for the more than 600,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine State in Myanmar to escape a military campaign of murder, rape and arson. But local bishops urged him to avoid addressing the issue out of concern that it could aggravate the problem and endanger the small Christian minority.

In the news conference, Mr. Burke suggested that the pope had privately raised the issue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose own reputation has sunk with the weight of the crisis.

“He is a very free man,” Mr. Burke said, when asked if the pope had brought it up.

But the pope was not willing to publicly air the issue. As a result, his bishops and spokesman were, remarkably, left to play down his influence to bring about change and depict him as manipulated by the country’s powerful interests.

At the news conference, Bishop John Hsane Hgyi of Pathein, Myanmar, was asked whether the pope had requested that he and other prelates concern themselves with the crisis in western Rakhine State. “It might be a little bit beyond his authority,” the bishop said, to do so.

Bishop Hsane Hgyi went on to cast doubt on whether any ethnic cleansing was actually taking place: “I don’t know whether it is true or not.” (“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Khin Maung Myint, a self-described Rohingya Muslim who attended the news conference.)

And asked why the pope’s schedule changed at the last minute to meet with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing before Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Burke said the general had moved up the meeting. “I’m sure the pope would have preferred meeting the general after he had done the official visits,” Mr. Burke said.

Mr. Burke suggested that the pope might be more at liberty to talk about the Rohingya when he meets with refugees in Bangladesh later this week, and argued that his silence did not take away from his previous championing — from the Vatican — of the Muslim minority as “brothers.”

It was probably not the defensive note that the Vatican had hoped the Myanmar leg of the trip would end on.

Earlier in the day, Francis rallied tens of thousands of Catholics of that tiny Christian population at an open-air Mass at Kyaikkasan Ground in Yangon, a faded colonial-era horse track where locals now play soccer and practice thaing, a local martial art.

In his homily, Francis referred to the deep discrimination suffered by the country’s many ethnic and religious groups.

“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” the pope said, urging them to resist the temptation of revenge and seek “forgiveness and compassion.”

The closest mention of the Rakhine conflict was a prayer read by one of the faithful in the Karen language during the Mass.

In the afternoon, the pope went to Yangon’s Kaba Aye Pagoda, where he said he hoped Buddhist wisdom would help “heal the wounds of conflict that through the years have divided people of different cultures, ethnicities and religious convictions.”

The pope and his entourage of white-clad bishops and cardinals sat in stocking feet on ornately carved armchairs opposite the Most Venerable Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, chairman of a state-run committee of senior monks, who was wrapped in brilliant red robes and flanked by other leading monks, wearing burgundy and saffron.

Francis said the level of injustice, conflict and inequality was “especially pronounced” in these times, and expressed admiration for those in Myanmar “who live in accord with the religious traditions of Buddhism,” which he listed as “the values of patience, tolerance and respect for life.”

Not all monks feel that way. Some ultranationalist Buddhist monks who are part of a group called the Patriotic Association of Myanmar have fueled the hatred against the Rohingya, prompting the government to bar the monks from preaching, though their message has spread via Facebook.

“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist monk, said in a 2013 sermon, referring to Muslims.

In May, Buddhist vigilantes raided a Muslim neighbourhood in Yangon where they believed Rohingya were hiding. Weeks later, the state-run committee that Francis met with on Wednesday banned organizations operating under the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, also known as Ma Ba Tha.

On Wednesday, Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, in prepared remarks made available by the Vatican, denounced the “terrorism and extremism carried out in the name of religious beliefs,” though it was not clear whether he was referring to Buddhism, Islam or both.

He argued that the roots of extremism were not in religion itself, but “an evil interpretation of the original teachings of the respective religions.”

While he recognized Buddhism’s special status in Myanmar, he also recognized the legitimate presence here of Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

“This trip could be summed up in one word,” Mr. Burke said. “It’s not the word you are thinking about. It’s unity.”