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Pope sidesteps Rohingya crisis in Myanmar

Pontiff meets Suu Kyi, army chief during visit – Suu Kyi stripped of the ‘honorific’ freedom of Oxford

NAYPYIDAW: Pope Francis (2nd left) meets Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw. Pope Francis held talks with Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday – a key moment of a tour aimed at alleviating religious and ethnic hatreds that have driven huge numbers of Muslim Rohingya from the country. — AFP

NAYPYITAW: Pope Francis held talks with Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday, the second day of a visit fraught with tension after the United States accused the Southeast Asian nation of “ethnic cleansing” against its Muslim Rohingya people. The pope earlier met leaders of several faiths in the majority-Buddhist country, calling for “unity in diversity” but making no mention of the Rohingya who have fled en masse to Bangladesh since a military crackdown began three months ago.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church will also travel to Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has dubbed “crimes against humanity”. Myanmar’s army has denied accusations of murder, rape, torture and forced displacement that have been made against it. “Unity is always a product of diversity,” Francis told leaders of the Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Christian faiths in the city of Yangon, according to Vatican officials who gave a briefing on the 40-minute meeting.

“Everyone has their values, their riches as well as their differences, as each religion has its riches, its traditions, its riches to share. And this can only happen if we live in peace, and peace is constructed in a chorus of differences.” Aye Lwin, a prominent Muslim leader who was at the meeting, told Reuters he had asked the pope to appeal to Myanmar’s political leaders “to rescue the religion that we cherish, which could be hijacked by a hidden agenda”. Only about 700,000 of Myanmar’s 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands of them have travelled from far and wide to see him and more than 150,000 people have registered for a mass that Francis will say in Yangon today.

The word ‘Rohingya’
The pope later flew to the capital, Naypyitaw, where he met President Htin Kyaw, writing in the guest book at the presidential palace: “On all the beloved people in Myanmar, I invoke the divine blessings of justice, peace and unity.” He then went into talks with Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate and champion of democracy who has faced criticism from around the globe because she has expressed doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failed to condemn the military. Both Francis and Suu Kyi were due to make speeches later.

His trip is so delicate that some papal advisers have warned Francis against even saying the word “Rohingya”, lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the country’s military and government against minority Christians. The Rohingya exodus from Rakhine state to Bangladesh began after Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week called the military operation “ethnic cleansing” and threatened targeted sanctions for “horrendous atrocities”. Myanmar’s government has denied most of the accusations made against it, and the army says its own investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops. Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens nor as members of a distinct ethnic group with their own identity, and it even rejects the term “Rohingya” and its use. Many people in Myanmar instead refer to members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine state as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

In another development, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been stripped of the honorific freedom of Oxford, the British city where she studied and raised her children, over her “inaction” in the Rohingya crisis. “When Aung San Suu Kyi was given the Freedom of the City in 1997 it was because she reflected Oxford’s values of tolerance and internationalism,” the city council said in a statement issued late Monday. “Today we have taken the unprecedented step of stripping her of the city’s highest honor because of her inaction in the face of the oppression of the minority Rohingya population,” added the release, which was published after a unanimous vote.

“Our reputation is tarnished by honoring those who turn a blind eye to violence.” Oxford’s world-renowned university removed portraits of Suu Kyi, a former student, from its walls in September. Suu Kyi’s late husband Michael Aris was a lecturer in Asian history at the university, and the couple lived and raised their two sons in the city. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has come under fire for failing to speak up in defense of the minority Muslim community. – Agencies

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