YANGON, Burma – On Monday, Nov. 27, Pope Francis touched down in Yangon for what will likely be a politically charged and religiously significant six-day trip bringing him to both Burma and Bangladesh as the two countries face an escalating refugee crisis.
Pope Francis is in Burma and Bangladesh Nov. 27 to Dec. 2, his third tour of Asia since his election in 2013. It is the first papal visit to Burma; the Holy See established formal diplomatic relations with the country only last year. (Pope John Paul II visited Bangladesh in 1986, and Pope Paul VI made a brief stop in the territory in 1970, when it was still East Pakistan.)
Throughout his six-day visit, Pope Francis will give 11 addresses: five in Burma (three formal speeches and two homilies), and six in Bangladesh (five official speeches and one homily).
On the plane ride over, Francis told journalists he hopes it will be a fruitful visit. Here are a few key things to keep an eye out for.
The pope’s meetings with Burmese civil and military authorities
This trip is one of the most diplomatically complicated international voyages Pope Francis has taken — in a briefing last week, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke described the trip as “very interesting diplomatically.”
Aside from the very small Catholic population in each country, political circumstances in Burma have been precarious for years, as they are in the midst of a transition from military leadership to diplomacy.
The country is also called Myanmar, and while the Vatican uses this name in their official diplomatic correspondence, “Myanmar” is considered by the U.S. government and many democracy activists to have been illegally imposed on the country by its military dictatorship.
Burma functioned as a military dictatorship for more than 50 years, until democratic reforms began taking root in 2011. In November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, were elected by an overwhelming majority, putting an end to the military dictatorship.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her party had also won the election in 1990, but the results weren’t recognized by the military government, and she was put under house arrest. Despite her success in 2015, she is still barred from officially becoming president, and holds the title of “state counsellor” and foreign minister, while a close associate acts as president.
Despite emerging signs of democratic reform in Burma, the military still wields considerable political authority, including the appointment of cabinet ministers and one-quarter of the nation’s legislature.
A key element of the pope’s visit to watch for, then, is his formal meetings with both Aung San Suu Kyi, Nov. 28, and Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces.
The meeting with Min Aung Hlaing wasn’t initially on the pope’s schedule; however, during a recent visit to Rome Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon recommended that a meeting with the military leader be added.
Pope Francis took the cardinal’s advice and scheduled the meeting for Nov. 30 at the archbishop’s house in Yangon, where the pope is staying while in Burma. However, the meeting was bumped up, and took place on the first day of Francis’ visit, shortly after he landed.
Lasting a total of 15 minutes, including conversation via interpreters and an exchange of gifts, the private encounter was the pope’s first official meeting of the trip. Several of Min Aung Hlaing’s deputies were present.
According to Burke, the two spoke of “the great responsibility of the country’s authorities in this moment of transition.”
Min Aung Hlaing said on Twitter that he told Pope Francis, “there’s no religious discrimination” in the country, and “there is the freedom of religion.”
That Pope Francis bumped the trip to the first day of his visit, when nothing else was scheduled, is noteworthy, and will be important to keep in mind as he meets with Aung San Suu Kyi, the president and civil authorities Nov. 28. His words during the meeting are sure to carry a weighty significance.
The term ‘Rohingya’
With this political backdrop in mind, another thing to look out for is whether or not Pope Francis will use the term “Rohingya” to describe the largely Muslim ethnic group who reside in Burma’s Rakhine State.
His visit comes amid an uptick in state-supported violence against the Rohingya, which in recent months has reached staggering levels, causing the United Nations to declare the situation “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
With an increase in persecution in their home country, many of the Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, with millions camping along the border as refugees. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled Burma for Bangladesh in recent months.
Despite widespread use of the term “Rohingya” in the international community, it is controversial within Burma. The Burmese government refuses to use the term and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship since Burma gained independence in 1948.
Because of the touchy nature of the term, Cardinal Bo also suggested to the pope that he refrain from using the word on the ground, arguing that extremists in the area are trying to rouse the population by using the term, raising the risk of a new interreligious conflict, with Christians in the crossfire.
According to Bo, the correct term is “Muslims of the Rakhine State.” He also stressed that other minorities in Burmese territory face persecution and displacement, including the Kachin, Kahn and Shahn peoples, yet their plight often goes unreported.
Burke said the recent worsening of the humanitarian situation in Burma will be a strong element of the pope’s visit, and that Francis is coming “at a key time.”
However, while the situation of the Rohingya has escalated over the past few months, Burke said it wasn’t the primary reason for the pope’s visit. “The trip was going to happen anyway,” he said. Recent developments have now “drawn attention to it, but it was going to happen anyway.”
Burke himself used the term “Rohingya” to describe the persecuted Muslim minority, saying “it’s not a forbidden term” in the Vatican, and the pope himself has used it before. But Cardinal Bo made a suggestion that Francis “took into account,” Burke said, adding, “we’ll see together” whether or not Pope Francis uses the term during his visit.
Throughout his visit, Pope Francis will have several moments of interreligious encounter, including with Rohingya Muslims. Combine this with the fact that Burma is a majority Buddhist country and Bangladesh majority Muslim, and these meetings will be of special interest.
Of importance is a private meeting of interreligious leaders scheduled to take place Nov. 28 at the archbishop’s residence in Yangon, which wasn’t initially on the pope’s slate, but was also added upon the suggestion of Cardinal Bo.
Though there is not yet a list of who will participate, Bo said around 15 leaders will be present representing Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, including the likely presence of a member of the Rohingya community.
On the same day, Francis will meet with members of the “Sangha,” the Supreme Council of Buddhist clergy in the country. Catholics in Burma are a small minority, making up just 1.3 percent of a population of nearly 52 million.
Pope Francis will also meet with Rohingya Muslims during a Dec. 1 interreligious encounter in Bangladesh where five testimonies are expected to be given. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians will all be present for the gathering.
In Bangladesh, 86 percent of the population practices Islam. The 375,000 Catholics there represent less than 0.2 percent of the total population.
Words to the Catholic community
Pope Francis has a well-known affinity for the peripheries. Both Burma and Bangladesh fall into this category, ecclesiastically and economically. Bangladesh is among the poorest countries in the world, with nearly 30 percent of the population living under the poverty line.
The pope already boosted the profile of these nations by appointing their first-ever cardinals, giving Cardinal Bo a red hat in 2015 and elevating Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka in November 2016.
With Christians being a small minority in both Burma and Bangladesh, the pope’s appointments were considered an encouragement for the small Catholic populations, and his visit is seen as a further sign of his closeness to a demographic that also faces discrimination in the area.
Christians in Burma also face blatant persecution, which some fear could increase if the pope offends the government regarding the Rohingya.
Last year the United States Commission on Religious Freedom issued two separate reports on Burma, one of which focused on the plight of the Rohingya, and the second, titled “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma,” highlighted the discrimination and persecution Christians face.
Encounters with youth
The pope’s visits to both Burma and Bangladesh will close with meetings with the countries’ youth.
According to Burke, this was a decision the pope himself made in order to show that they are an essential part of the church, and that in each country, it is “a young church with hope.”
In his meetings with youth, the pope typically tosses his prepared remarks after listening to testimonies, and speaks more freely and casually to the youth as he tries to enter into the raw reality faced by the local population, giving them a message of hope and some instructions for the future.
In messages sent to both countries ahead of his visit, Pope Francis said he was coming to spread the Gospel and to bring a message of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Though he will likely offer paternal advice to priests and religious, the meetings with youth re where his more pastoral side is likely to come out most strongly, and where he will likely go beyond politics in order to offer a message of hope, peace and reconciliation for youth to carry forward into the future.