By NICOLE WINFIELD
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis will wade into the religious and political minefield of Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims and the effects of their exodus to Bangladesh when he visits both countries next month.
The Vatican on Tuesday released the itinerary for the Nov. 26-Dec. 2 trip, which has taken on greater visibility since Myanmar security forces responded to Rohingya militant attacks with a broad crackdown in August. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in what the United Nations has called “textbook ethnic cleansing.”
The itinerary makes no mention of a papal meeting with Rohingya in either country. Francis, however, is likely to at least refer to their plight since he has already denounced the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers” on several occasions from the Vatican.
The trip motto is peace, harmony and love among people of different faiths.
Francis’ first speech in Myanmar is likely to refer to the issue when he addresses Myanmar’s top civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, government officials and Myanmar’s diplomatic corps in the political capital, Nay Pyi Taw, on Nov. 28, his first full day of activities in the country.
The following day he meets with the Sangha supreme council of Myanmar’s Buddhist monks, one of the most socially and politically influential institutions in the majority Buddhist country. The group has been silent over the population’s criticism of the Rohingya.
Myanmar’s Catholic cardinal, Cardinal Maung Bo, has defended Suu Kyi against international criticism over the Rohingya crackdown, stressing that her role is limited by the constitution and that the army is the main power-broker in the country.
After a Mass for Myanmar’s tiny Catholic community, Francis travels to Bangladesh, where he is expected to address delicate interfaith relations during an interreligious meeting on Dec. 1 in the garden of the archbishops’ residence.
The mostly Muslim nation of 160 million has faced a series of attacks by Islamic militants since 2013 that have targeted atheist bloggers, religious minorities, gay rights activists and foreign aid workers.
Bangladesh has had a grim record of political violence since the country won independence from Pakistan in a bloody war in 1971. It has witnessed the assassination of two presidents, the jailing and execution of political leaders, and 19 failed coup attempts.
AP writer Esther Htu San contributed from Bangkok, Thailand.