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Pope Francis arrived in Burma at 1.30pm today and was welcomed by a crowd of thousands who lined the streets to greet him on his drive into Yangon from the airport.
At St Mary’s Cathedral in the city centre, Catholics thronged the pavements, many with a Burmese flag in one hand and a mobile phone at the ready in the other.
“For us Christians, we just want to see him. [The Pope represents] our faith,” said a Kachin woman named Mi from Myitkyina. “Also, we need a time for healing in this country. We feel so thankful that he came to visit us.”
One group had travelled from Malaysia in the hope of getting a glimpse of the Pope. “I just wanted to see him, so I came to Myanmar,” said Faith from Sarawak, speaking to DVB from outside the cathedral. “I really like this pope; he is so compassionate. He says what he feels, and he knows how we feel.”
Pope Francis is due to spend four days in Burma before travelling on to Bangladesh.
This is the first ever visit to Burma by a pope, and devotees of the Roman Catholic faith said they expect his trip to include messages of peace and calls for freedom of religion.
Father Hyginus Myint Soe of St. Peter & Paul’s Catholic Church in Yangon told DVB earlier today that he hoped Pope Francis would address the issue of religious freedom during his short visit.
“Our country is going through the transition of becoming a democratic nation,” he said. “So people must also be given freedom of religion.”
He added: “Freedom of religion [in Burma] is dependent on where you live. In many villages, it is difficult [to get permission] to build churches.”
Also there to greet the pope was Annie Edwards, a Catholic from Tanitharyi Region in the south of Burma. Speaking to DVB, she said, “If Christian organisations want to build churches, they need to wait a long time for their request to be approved.”
Only 700,000 of Burma’s 51 million people are Catholics, though several million are Christians of other denominations, especially among the country’s ethnic minorities.
The Pope is scheduled to meet with members of interfaith groups in Yangon before flying to the Burmese capital, Naypyidaw, where he will be hosted by President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. It has been reported that a meeting with Burma’s military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has also been penciled in.
Tens of thousands of Catholics are expected to throng Yangon on Wednesday when Pope Francis conducts Mass at Kyite Ka San Stadium.
The pope’s visit has been steeped in apprehension over its potential effect on simmering religious tensions in Burma’s western Rakhine State. The UN and US recently accused Buddhist-majority Burma of conducting “ethnic cleansing” against its Muslim Rohingya people.
During his visit to Bangladesh, Pope Francis will inspect refugee camps where more than 600,000 Rohingya have sought shelter. The refugees streamed across the border to escape Burmese military operations that were launched in Rakhine State following a deadly attack on 25 August against Burmese border police posts by a Rohingya militant group.
Amnesty International has referred to the military operations as “crimes against humanity”; however Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing has rejected the accusations, while de facto Burmese leader Suu Kyi has been reticent about acknowledging any atrocities.
Burma recognises few Rohingya as citizens and rejects use of the term “Rohingya” in any diplomatic dealings.
Pope Francis has already been forewarned about sensitivity over the word “Rohingya” in Burma. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the country’s most senior Catholic, last month urged the pope to refrain from uttering the term during his visit.
With additional reporting by Libby Hogan