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Pope meets Burmese general heading Rohingya crackdown

Pope Francis waves from the car as Catholic devotees wave flags welcoming him on Monday. Picture by Str, Associated Press
Nicole Winfield, Press Association

Pope Francis has arrived on a visit to Burma and Bangladesh to encourage their tiny Catholic communities and reach out to some of Asia's poorest people, but the big question was whether he would utter the word "Rohingya".

Francis immediately dived into the Rohingya Muslim crisis by meeting Burma's powerful military leader, General Min Aung Hlaing and three officials from the bureau of special operations.

The general is in charge of the security operation in Rakhine state, where a military crackdown against the Muslim minority has sent more than 620,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke did not provide details of the private 15-minute meeting at the archbishop's residence, other than to say: "They spoke of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition."

Rohingya in recent months have been subject to what the UN says is a campaign of "textbook ethnic cleansing" by the military in Rakhine.

Burma's local Catholic Church has publicly urged Francis to avoid using the term "Rohingya" because it is shunned by many locally as the ethnic group is not a recognised minority in the country.

However, Francis has already prayed for "our Rohingya brothers and sisters", and any decision to avoid the term could be viewed as a capitulation to Burma's military and a stain on his legacy of standing up for the most oppressed and marginalised.

Mr Burke did not say if Francis used the term in his meeting with the general, which ended with an exchange of gifts: Francis gave him a medallion of the trip, while the general gave the pope a harp in the shape of a boat, and an ornate rice bowl.

Upon arrival in Rangoon, the pope was greeted by local Catholic officials and his motorcade passed by thousands of Burma's Catholics, who lined the roads wearing traditional attire and playing music.

Children in traditional dress greeted him as he drove in a simple blue car, chanting "Viva il papa!" (Long live the pope) and waving small plastic Burmese and Holy See flags.

En route from Rome, Francis greeted journalists on the plane and apologised for the expected heat, which was 32C on his arrival and is expected to rise.

On Tuesday, he will begin the main protocol portion of his week-long trip, meeting the country's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and delivering a speech to other Burmese authorities and diplomats.

He will greet a delegation of Rohingya Muslims and meet Bangladesh's political and religious leadership in Dhaka. Masses for the Catholic faithful and meetings with the local church hierarchy round out the itinerary in each country.

The trip was planned before the latest spasm of violence erupted in August, when Rohingya militants attacked security positions in Rakhine. Burmese security forces responded with a scorched-earth campaign that forced more than 620,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, where they are living in squalid refugee camps.

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