Pope told by army chief: there is ‘no religious discrimination’ in Myanmar

Pontiff pressured to avoid using the word ‘Rohingya’ during three-day visit that includes talks with Burmese army.

Myanmar’s powerful army chief has told Pope Francis there is “no religious discrimination” in the country during talks at the start of the pontiff’s delicate visit to the majority-Buddhist nation that has been accused of “ethnic cleansing” against its Muslim Rohingya people.

Thousands of Catholics welcomed Pope Francis to the country’s capital, Naypyidaw, where he arrived for a three-day visit to Myanmar on Monday. The trip – fraught with sensitivity and trepidation over how he will deal with the plight of the Muslim Rohingya – could be the trickiest yet of his papacy.

The army chief told the pope that “Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all. Likewise our military too … performs for the peace and stability of the country”, according to a Facebook post published by the general’s office a few hours after the meeting. There is also “no discrimination between ethnic groups in Myanmar”, he added.

The Vatican said the meeting with General Min Aung Hlaing and three officials from Myanmar’s bureau of special operations took place on Monday evening at the residence of the Myanmar archbishop and lasted about 15 minutes.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke didn’t provide details of the private meeting other than to say that “they spoke of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition”.

Min Aung Hlaing is in charge of military operations in Rakhine state, where security forces have launched a scorched earth campaign against Rohingya Muslims that has forced more than 620,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in what the UN said is a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”.

Francis’s meeting with the commander had been scheduled for Wednesday morning, but was moved up to just a few hours after he landed in Naypyidaw. He is scheduled to meet the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in the coming days.

After touching down on Monday afternoon, the pope was greeted by a large crowd at the airport, many waving yellow and white Vatican flags and dressed in T-shirts bearing the slogan of the trip, “Love and Peace”. As he drove past, they screamed and chanted “We love Papa”.

But the head of the Catholic church faces a difficult diplomatic balancing act on his first papal visit to Myanmar.

Even mentioning the word “Rohingya” would set off a firestorm in the Buddhist-majority country, where the military and government revile the minority group, preferring to call them “Bengalis”, which suggests they are immigrants.

Many civilians, fleeing an army campaign, arrived with bullet wounds and claimed their homes had been razed. The operation followed an attack on security posts on 25 August by Rohingya militants, who the government said are responsible for abuses. The army has also absolved itself of wrongdoing.

The pope has already spoken about the Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year, including calling them “our Rohingya brothers and sisters”.

He will be staying with Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Naypyidaw, who has advised Francis not to use the word. “We have asked him at least to refrain from using the word ‘Rohingya’ because this word is very much contested and not acceptable by the military, nor the government, nor the people in Myanmar,” Bo said this month.

Burke said the pope had taken the advice he had been given seriously, but added: “We will find out together during the trip … it is not a forbidden word.”

The country of 51 million people includes about 650,000 Catholics, of whom about 150,000 were expected to travel to the commercial capital for the papal visit. Trains have been hired to take Christians living in northern Kachin state on the two-day journey.

Among the crowd at the airport, one man, who asked not to be named, said he hoped Francis would not wade into the crisis. “He’s not a politician,” he said. “He doesn’t come here to physically get involved in this thing … At the moment we are trying to build our democratic country. There should not be so much pressure on us. It’s not fair,” he said.

Another Catholic at the terminal said the issue should not be ignored. “I think he should speak about it. Because he is a leader of the Catholics as well he has some moral status. I hope he will speak about it. He will bring peace to us,” said Raj Robin, who had just arrived back from a trip to India.

Full diplomatic ties were established between the Vatican and Myanmar in May during a visit by Aung San Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel peace prize, whose global image has now been tarnished by the bloodshed.

Following his visit to Myanmar, Francis will travel to Bangladesh to meet Rohingya refugees.