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Pope meets general blamed for Rohingya exodus

28 November 2017

Pope Francis is meeting with President Htien Kyaw, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the military commander Senior General Min Aun Hlaing as well as diplomats, civil society representatives and young people. The Rohingya, who have fled to Bangladesh following a Myanmar military crackdown, are not officially recognized as one of the country's 135 separate ethnic groups and are commonly referred to as Bengali.

"They discussed the great responsibility of authorities of the country in this time of transition", Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said after the 15 minutes of talks, which were followed by an exchange of gifts.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week called the military operation "ethnic cleansing".

Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar, the country that has been accused of ethnic cleansing this year. Pope presented the general with a commemorative medal of his visit, and Min Aung Hlaing gave the Pope a harp in the shape of a boat and an ornate rice bowl, Burke said.

'We come here to see the Holy Father. Posters wishing Francis "a heartiest of welcome" lined the route into town.

Aboard the papal plane bound for Myanmar, Pope Francis briefly greeted the journalists accompanying him on his 21st Apostolic Journey. He will then go to Bangladesh, where a small group of refugees will meet him in a symbolic motion. Masses for the Catholic faithful and meetings with the local church hierarchy round out the itinerary in each country.

Around 700,000 of Myanmar's 51 million people are Catholic
Around 700,000 of Myanmar's 51 million people are Catholic

Attacks by Muslim insurgents of Rohingya origin on police posts in late August provoked a harsh response from Myanmar's government.

But despite the decades of internal strife, it is the recent exodus of more than 620,000 Muslim Rohingya people from northern Rakhine State and what the pope decides to publicly say about them that has grabbed the world's attention.

"His motto is love and peace so he will surely talk about peace", U Kyar, a government schoolteacher, told ucanews.com.

But in Yangon, the sentiment was different.

But a cardinal from Myanmar warned the pope to avoid even using the word "Rohingya" inside the country as it's so divisive, it could lead to protests against the minority Muslims. "So, I think a lot of diplomacy is needed, in addition to the public relations". "It is a contested term", said Cardinal Bo.

Pope meets general blamed for Rohingya exodus