Mass interfaith rally prays for Rakhine peace


People hold candles during the Interreligious Gathering of Prayer for Peace ceremony at Yangon football stadium on 10 October 2017. Photo: Thura/Mizzima

Tens of thousands of people filled a Yangon football stadium for an interfaith prayer ceremony on Tuesday, a show of unity in a country damaged by ethnically-charged violence against the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State.

Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns, Christians, Hindus and Muslims were among those that poured into the arena to pray for peace in Myanmar's western Rakhine State, the epicentre of communal bloodshed that erupted in late August.

The October 10 Yangon rally brought together a mix of faiths who back the government, which has defended its crackdown as a proportionate operation to flush out Rohingya terrorists. Many carried portraits of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

The mass exodus of Rohingya has shocked and alarmed the world, with the UN accusing the army of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslim minority.

But the conflict is viewed differently inside mainly Buddhist Myanmar, where many loathe the Rohingya and blame them for driving the unrest, claiming terrorists are responsible for driving the violence.

A siege mentality has developed, forging new alliances as many in Myanmar unite around criticism of foreign media and international NGOs, who they accuse of a pro-Rohingya bias.

Tuesday's rally brought together a mix of faiths who back the Nobel laureate and her National League for Democracy (NLD), which helped organise the event.

NLD lawmaker Win Maung said ahead of the ceremony it would show the world that people of different faiths could live in harmony in Myanmar.

"We deeply regret the reaction from international countries based on the news without truth," said the lawmaker.

In a speech to the crowd Myanmar's Catholic cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, came out in strong defence of Suu Kyi, recalling her long years as a democracy activist under the former junta.

"She never asked for the Nobel Peace Prize," he said, responding to calls from some corners that she be stripped of the title.

"Now the world sees Myanmar as a heartless country. But actually the universal religion of Myanmar people is compassion and sympathy."

Many in the crowd of around 30,000 held portraits of Suu Kyi or wore shirts bearing her face.

Myanmar is home to a diverse patchwork of more than 100 ethnic groups but the Rohingya are not recognised as an official ethnicity -- a status that renders them stateless.

They have been the target of systematic oppression in Myanmar for decades, with previous campaigns driving huge numbers across the border to Bangladesh.

Reporting by AFP and Mizzima

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