Pope faces high-wire act as he lands in Myanmar

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PV International Desk : Pope Francis flew to Myanmar on Monday in one of his most sensitive trips yet, as religious tensions fester in the mainly Buddhist nation that has bristled at global outrage over its treatment of Rohingya Muslims.

Myanmar’s military is accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the stateless Muslim minority, more than 600,000 of whom have fled a crackdown in northern Rakhine State for neighbouring Bangladesh over the past three months.

Francis will meet powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing during the trip in a highly anticipated encounter between a religious leader who has championed the rights of refugees and the man accused of overseeing the charge to drive out the Rohingya.

He will also meet civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi — a Nobel laureate whose international standing as a moral icon has crumbled over what the world sees as her lack of sympathy for the Rohingya.

Myanmar’s 700,000 Catholics — just over one percent of the country’s 51 million people — generally enjoy good relations with their mainly Buddhist compatriots and are gripped with excitement over the first ever papal visit.

“As I prepare to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh, I wish to send a message of greeting and friendship to everyone. I can’t wait to meet you!” Francis said in a message posted on his official Twitter account ahead of his trip, which will also see him visit Dhaka.

Speaking to a crowd of 30,000 people in St Peter’s Square, shortly before he left Rome, the pontiff said: “I ask you to be with me in prayer so that, for these peoples, my presence is a sign of affinity and hope”.

The pope has been forthright about his sympathy for the Rohingya from afar, calling them “brothers and sisters” and deploring the plight of hundreds of thousands of children swept up in the violence.