YANGON, Myanmar — The Latest on Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar (all times local):
Myanmar’s Catholic Church is defending leader Aung San Suu Kyi and casting doubt on the veracity of reports about “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims by the military in northern Rakhine state.
Bishop John Hsane Hgyi suggested that reports of atrocities being committed are not “reliable” or “authoritative” and that those who are criticizing Myanmar’s response to a complex situation should “go into the field to study the reality and history” to obtain “true news.”
The United Nations leadership and the United States have termed the campaign in Rakhine a textbook case of “ethnic cleansing.” Human rights organizations on the ground in Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps, have interviewed Rohingya who report women and girls being raped and villages burned.
The bishop spoke at a news conference Wednesday alongside Vatican spokesman Greg Burke about Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar. Burke said the Vatican hadn’t developed an official line about the situation.
The Vatican is acknowledging a protocol breach when Myanmar’s military chief met with Pope Francis before the pontiff met with the country’s civilian leadership.
Spokesman Greg Burke said Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had requested to move up their meeting to Monday, soon after the pontiff arrived in Myanmar at the start of his weeklong South Asian visit. It had originally been scheduled for Wednesday, after Francis was to be officially welcomed by leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital, Naypyitaw.
The meeting had the effect of suggesting that the military leader was more in charge than Suu Kyi.
Burke on Wednesday said Francis would have preferred to have met with the general after the Suu Kyi welcome, since it would have been “more cleaner from a protocol point of view.”
The Vatican is denying that Pope Francis has lost his moral authority after he declined to publicly call out Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said critics are allowed to opine about the pope’s decision, saying “Vatican diplomacy isn’t infallible.”
Human Rights Watch and Rohingya themselves have said they were disappointed by Francis’ decision in a speech to Myanmar leaders on Tuesday not to cite the Rohingya by name or even directly refer to what the U.N. and U.S. have said is a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” by the military in Rakhine state. The campaign has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, where they have reported entire villages in Myanmar being burned and looted and women and girls raped.
Burke told a news conference Wednesday: “I know the pundits are out there with all their opinions. I find it really hard to think the moral authority of the pope has somehow diminished.”
Pope Francis has urged Myanmar’s religious leaders and ordinary faithful to help the country heal its old wounds, preaching a message of forgiveness and tolerance as the country emerges from military dictatorship and seeks to make peace with its many ethnic minorities after decades of conflict.
At an open-air Mass, an audience with Myanmar’s senior Buddhist monks and during an encounter with his own Catholic bishops, Francis sought to encourage greater dialogue and understanding at a delicate time of transition in the predominantly Buddhist South Asian nation.
“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” Francis told a huge open-air Mass in Yangon’s Kyaikkasan Ground park. While the temptation is to respond with revenge, Francis urged instead a response of “forgiveness and compassion.”