Pope Francis has met a top Burmese Buddhist monk the Sitagu Sayadaw who's been criticized for allegedly using slurs against Muslims.
Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke said that Francis met briefly with the Buddhist leader separately and not during an interfaith meeting with other religious leaders at the Catholic archbishop's residence in Yangon on Tuesday.
Burke said the encounter was "always an effort to encourage peace and fraternal coexistence as the only way ahead."
Sitagu has been criticized for allegedly using slurs against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, the target of a huge military crackdown since late August.
The Vatican says the pope stressed a message of "unity in diversity" in a 40-minute meeting with Myanmar's Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders.
Spokesperson Greg Burke said Francis told the local religious leaders they should work together to rebuild the country and that if they argue, they should argue like brothers, who reconcile afterward.
He arrived in the country on Monday, met the Burmese army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and is scheduled to meet State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital Nay Pyi Taw today.
Sitagu Sayadaw had also met with Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
The top Buddhist monk is the founder and Supreme Head of the Sitagu Buddhist Academies and received an award presented by Suu Kyi earlier this year.
Practicing what he describes as 'socially engaged Buddhism’, he is respected not only as one of the most prominent monks in Myanmar but also as the leader of numerous charitable humanitarian works, despite his association in recent years with the now-disbanded Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha.
He is referred to as a 'global Buddhist diplomat' who travels worldwide to promote his humanitarian efforts and for interfaith dialogue.
He became "Shwegyin Nikaya Uppaokkahta" which means Jointed Leading Head of Shwegyin Nikarya (Shwegyin Sanga Organization) of Myanmar in 2012.
Sitagu Sayadaw recently delivered a sermon to army officers and their families at the Bayinnaung training camp in Kayin State in which he told the story of a Buddhist Sinhalese king who slaughtered many ethnic Tamils in an epic battle.
The king’s Buddhist advisors, the sermon said, justified the slaughter by affirming that only those who followed Buddhist precepts could be considered humans.
It was a chilling example of what scholar Matthew Walton, writing in Foreign Affairs, claimed to be religious justification for mass killing of non-Buddhists.
"As Sitagu is so influential and revered his words could provide the final cover for Myanmar’s Buddhists to ignore international criticism and cloak themselves in the righteousness of holy war,” Walton said.