Bangladesh priest disappears days before Pope's historic visit

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Kidnapping feared as Bangladesh prepares to welcome Pope

DHAKA: A Catholic priest has disappeared in Bangladesh, right before Pope Francis starts a landmark visit to the Muslim-majority nation wracked by Islamist extremism.

Father Walter William Rosario, 40, is from a village in northern Bangladesh where suspected Islamist extremists last year hacked a Catholic grocer to death at his shop.

A major search has been launched for Father Rosario, who is also headmaster of a Catholic school in Natore district, after his family reported him missing, police said.

"He has been missing since late Monday. His mobile (phone) has been switched off," local police chief Biplob Bijoy Talukder said.

Bishop Gerves Rosario, from the nearby city of Rajshahi, said he believed the priest had been kidnapped and that Catholics in the region were deeply worried.

"He was organising for around 300 Catholics to travel to Dhaka to see the Pope and attend his holy mass. But his disappearance has marred their joy. They don't want to go to Dhaka anymore," he said.

The family received a phone call from someone using the priest's number to demand a ransom, but Superintendent Talukder said police believed this was a hoax.

Pope Francis will arrive in Bangladesh today on the first visit to the country by the head of the Catholic Church in 31 years.

Yesterday, on the last day of his historic visit to Myanmar, Pope Francis called on Myanmar's top Buddhist monks to conquer "prejudice and hatred" in a country scored by communal divisions, after holding the nation's first papal mass, attended by 150,000 Catholics.

His four-day visit has so far been marked by a public avoidance of the crisis in northern Rakhine state and Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya Muslim community.

Pope Francis had previously spoken strongly in defence of the Muslim group, which the UN has said are victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign by Myanmar's military that has driven some 620,000 of them into Bangladesh since August.

"If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred," the Pope told a body of Buddhist monks in Myanmar.

The Pope had delivered a message of forgiveness earlier that day in an open-air mass before a sea of worshippers in Yangon.

A choir of Myanmar nuns sang in Latin, as Pope Francis delivered a homily urging compassion.

"I can see that the Church here is alive," he said of a Catholic community numbering around 700,000 - a fraction of the country's 51 million people. He noted that many Myanmar people "bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible".

But he urged his audience to forgo anger and respond with "forgiveness and compassion". - AFP