Pope Francis landed in Yangon on Monday, the start of a delicate visit for the world’s most prominent Christian to majority-Buddhist Myanmar, which the U.S. has accused of “ethnic cleansing” its Muslim Rohingya people.
The pope will also visit Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has dubbed “crimes against humanity”.
The Myanmar army has denied the accusations of murder, rape, torture and forcible displacement.
After leaving Rome, the pope told reporters on his plane: “They say it’s too hot (in Myanmar). I‘m sorry, but let’s hope it will at least be fruitful.”
Ethnic minorities in traditional dress welcomed Francis at Yangon airport, and children presented him with flowers as he stepped off his plane.
He waved through an open window at dozens of children waving Vatican and Myanmar flags and T-shirts with the motto of the trip – “love and peace” – as he set off in a light blue Toyota car for St. Mary’s Cathedral in the heart of the city.
Only about 700,000 of Myanmar’s 51 million people are Roman Catholic.
Thousands of them travelled by train and bus to Yangon, and they joined crowds at several roadside points along the way from the airport to catch a glimpse of the pope.
“We come here to see the Holy Father. It happens once in hundreds of years,” said Win Min Set, a community leader who brought a group of 1,800 Catholics from southern and western states of the country.
“He is very knowledgeable when it comes to political affairs. He will handle the issue smartly,” he said, referring to the sensitivity of the pope’s discussions about the Rohingya.
Large numbers of riot police were mobilised in the country’s main city but there were no signs of any protests.
The trip is so delicate that some papal advisers have warned him against even saying the word “Rohingya”, lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the Buddhist-majority country’s military and government against minority Christians.
The Rohingya exodus from Rakhine state to Bangladesh’s southern tip began at the end of August, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lon Thursday called the military operation “ethnic cleansing” and threatened targeted sanctions for “horrendous atrocities”.
Myanmar’s government has denied most of the accusations made against it, and the army says its own investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.
Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens nor as members of a distinct ethnic group with their own identity, and it even rejects the term “Rohingya” and its use.
Many people in Myanmar instead refer to members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine state as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Francis is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, on the second leg of his trip.
The most tense moments of his Myanmar visit are likely to be private meetings with the army chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and, separately, civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
More than 150,000 people have registered for a mass that Francis will say in Yangon on Wednesday, according to Catholic Myanmar Church spokesman Mariano Soe Naing.
Vatican sources say some in the Holy See believe the trip was decided too hastily after full diplomatic ties were established in May during a visit by Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi’s reputation as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been tarnished because she has expressed doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failed to condemn the military.
“I have great admiration for the pope and his abilities, but someone should have talked him out of making this trip,” said Father Thomas Reese, a prominent American author and analyst at Religion News Service.
The pope has already used the word Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year.
Asked if he would say it in Myanmar, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Francis was taking the advice he had been given seriously, but added: “We will find out together during the trip … it is not a forbidden word”.
A hardline Buddhist monk group previously known as Ma Ba Tha said it welcomed the pope’s visit but warned, without elaborating, of “a response” if he spoke openly about the Rohingya.
“I hope he doesn’t touch on sensitive issues that Myanmar people couldn’t accept,” said Tawparka, a spokesman for the influential group, who goes by a single name.
“There’s no problem if he talks about Islam, but it’s unacceptable if he speaks about Rohingya and extreme terrorists.”