Pope Francis, delivering a closely watched speech in Myanmar, called on the Southeast Asian country to respect all religious groups. But as some had feared and others had hoped, the pontiff failed to mention by name the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority.
Instead, Francis made thinly veiled references to the ongoing crisis in the country's western Rakhine state, where the military has reportedly burned whole villages, carried out rape and beaten the Rohingya since August, forcing an estimated 620,000 to flee across the border to neighboring Bangladesh. Both the United Nations and the United States have described what is happening there as "ethnic cleansing."
"The arduous process of peace-building and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights," the pope said after Myanmar's nominal leader, Aung San Suu Kyi had made an address.
"Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building," he said.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens and, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Myanmar, where she is traveling with the pontiff, "local Catholic officials had advised the pope not to utter the name 'Rohingya,' lest it trigger reprisals against the small Catholic minority by Buddhist nationalists and military leaders."
Francis, the first pope ever to visit the Southeast Asian country, arrived in Yangon on Monday. He is expected to travel on Thursday to Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has received the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar and is currently housing the refugees in squalid border camps.
Francis, who has spoken forcefully and passionately in the past of the plight of the world's displaced and persecuted minorities, met with Suu Kyi and was to have also met separately with the country's powerful military chief and Buddhist monks.
Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her long campaign for democracy – much of it spent under house arrest. But although she has no direct authority over the country's military, Suu Kyi has come under intense international pressure for not denouncing the army's crackdown.
Since the crackdown began in August, refugees have poured across the border into Bangladesh carrying with them stories of brutality, including beatings, shootings and rape. Many bear the physical scars of abuse to back up their claims. Suu Kyi has remained largely silent on the alleged atrocities and Myanmar's military has denied they've taken place.
Last week, Myanmar and Bangladesh reached a tentative agreement for the repatriation of the refugees. As part of the deal, Myanmar has insisted on taking only those who possess papers; however, since Rohingya are not considered citizens by the government, it is unclear what, if any, documentation would be acceptable.