A sea of worshippers crowded into a football field in Yangon Wednesday for a historic open-air mass by Pope Francis, whose visit to Myanmar has been framed so far by his public sidestepping of the Rohingya crisis.
Ranks of nuns sang in Latin, accompanied by organ music, as Francis – making the first papal visit to the mainly Buddhist nation – delivered a homily urging compassion, opening his speech with “minglabar”, Burmese for hello.
“I can see that the Church here is alive,” he said of a Catholic community numbering around 700,000 – a tiny fraction of the country’s 51 million people.
Earlier Francis smiled and waved as he moved through the estimated 150,000 faithful in his “popemobile”. Many worshippers held Myanmar flags and wore colorful costume from the country’s myriad ethnic groups.
“I never dreamed I would see him in my lifetime,” said Meo, an 81-year-old from the Akha minority in Shan state.
Like many others at the mass she is from one of Myanmar’s conflict-riddled borderlands, where minority groups have long been marginalized by the Buddhist-dominated state.
“This is the most Catholics I have ever seen,” added Gregory Than Zaw, 40, an ethnic Karen, who made the five-hour bus journey to Yangon with 90 people from his village.
The pope is set to hold a meeting with Buddhist leaders later Wednesday, on a visit that has been strong political as well as religious overtones.
‘Respect for rights’
The pontiff arrived on Monday in a country on the defensive after outcry from the international community over the plight of its unwanted Rohingya Muslim population, who have been driven to Bangladesh in huge numbers.
The pope avoided mentioning the crisis – or the Rohingya – directly in a speech the country’s capital on Tuesday, calling simply for “respect for rights and justice”.
His caution so far on a four-day trip will bring relief to Myanmar’s Catholic leaders who had urged the pontiff not to wade into the treacherous issue.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship, and even mention of their name is unacceptable to many among the majority-Buddhist population. (AFP)