Pope arrives in Myanmar on high-stakes visit


 Pope Francis waves from inside a vehicle as as he is welcomed by the crowd along a road in Yangon on 27 November 2017. Photo: Thura/Mizzima

Pope Francis arrived in mainly Buddhist Myanmar Monday on a highly sensitive visit to a country facing sharp global criticism for the alleged ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

Catholics in colourful ethnic traditional dress waved flags and danced at Yangon's airport in a joyful welcome for the pope, making the first visit to the country by a pontiff.

The visit comes as Myanmar's military stands accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya Muslims. More than 620,000 have fled a crackdown in northern Rakhine state for neighbouring Bangladesh over the past three months.

The pope's four-day visit intensifies pressure on Myanmar over its treatment of the stateless minority, a group he has called his "brothers and sisters" in repeated entreaties to ease their plight.

His speeches will be scrutinised by Buddhist hardliners for any mention of the word "Rohingya", an incendiary term in a country where the Muslim group are reviled and labelled "Bengalis" -- alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Francis will meet civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose lustre has faded because of her failure to speak up publicly for the Rohingya. He will also hold talks with army chief Min Aung Hlaing.

His visit is a historic chance for Myanmar's flock to get close to the head of their church.

Myanmar's estimated 700,000 Catholics make up just over one percent of the country's 51 million people and are scattered in far-flung corners of the nation, many of them roiled by conflict.

Around 200,000 Catholics are pouring into Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, by plane, train and car ahead of a huge open-air mass on Wednesday.

"We are ready to welcome the Pope cheerfully... with pure hearts," a woman from the northernmost state of Kachin told AFP, one of hundreds waiting near the archbishop's residence in Yangon.

© AFP

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