Pope Francis visits Myanmar with the R-word looming

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Pope Francis to meet Aung San Suu Kyi today before a huge open-air mass tomorrow

YANGON: Pope Francis met Myanmar's powerful army chief yesterday at the start of a highly sensitive trip to the majority-Buddhist country, which is under fire for a brutal army crackdown that sparked an exodus of Rohingya Muslims.

The 80-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic church, the first to travel to Myanmar, received Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at the archbishop's residence in Yangon, where the pontiff is staying.

The United Nations and United States accuse the army which the general controls of "ethnic cleansing" in a campaign that has driven more than 620,000 Rohingya from Myanmar's northern Rakhine state into Bangladesh since August.

The issue looms large over the pope's four-day trip.

He has called the Rohingya his "brothers and sisters" in repeated entreaties to ease their plight.

During a 15-minute meeting, the pontiff and the army chief spoke of the "great responsibility of the country's authorities in this moment of transition", a Vatican spokesman said.

Myanmar was ruled by a junta for five decades until a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi came to power last year.

Earlier yesterday, Pope Francis was welcomed at Yangon's airport by children from different minority groups in bright bejewelled clothes.

Nuns in white habits were among devotees waving flags as his motorcade swept past the golden Shwedagon Pagoda.

There are an estimated 700,000 Catholics in Myanmar's population of 51 million.

Around 200,000 Catholics are pouring into Yangon before a huge open-air mass tomorrow.

"People have come from all corners of the country, even if we could only see him for a few seconds," said Sister Genevieve Mu, an ethnic Karen nun.

The pope's speeches will be scrutinised by Buddhist hardliners for any mention of the word "Rohingya", an incendiary term in a country where the Muslims are labelled "Bengalis" and viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Today, Pope Francis will meet Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose lustre has faded because of her failure to speak up publicly for the Rohingya.

Myanmar and Bangladesh last week inked a deal to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees in two months.

The pope will on Thursday travel to Bangladesh, where he will meet a group of Rohingya Muslims in Dhaka. - AFP