Yangon: Pope Francis on Wednesday urged Myanmar’s ethnic minorities to resist the temptation to exact revenge for hatred and rejection, preaching a message of forgiveness in a historic mass to 150,000 worshippers in the predominantly Buddhist country.
The pontiff’s first visit to Myanmar, and the first ever by a sitting Pope, comes amid allegations of ethnic cleansing of the minority Rohingya Muslims in the country’s northern Rakhine state.
The Pope referred to the “wounds of violence” from ethnic conflict but urged people to shun revenge, saying it was “not the way of Jesus”, the BBC reported.
In his sermon, the Pope said: “I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible… We think that healing can come from anger and revenge. Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus.”
He again avoided the term Rohingya, the Muslim community of whom 620,000 people have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh after a military crackdown in late August.
The Pope had been warned by his Catholic representatives in the country not to use the term Rohingya for fear of alienating the Buddhist majority and causing difficulties for the nation’s 600,000 Catholics.
About 90 per cent of Myanmar’s Catholics come from ethnic minority groups and tens of thousands of devotees had travelled long distances to attend the mass at Yangon’s Kyaikkasan Ground park.
Crowds of worshippers waved Vatican and national flags while the Pope passed them in his Popemobile, as he made his way to the venue.
“Many of you have come from far and remote mountainous areas, some even on foot,” he spoke in Italian to the crowd. “I have come as a fellow pilgrim to listen and to learn from you, as well as to offer you some words of hope and consolation.”
The Pope also praised the Myanmar Catholic Church for offering “practical assistance and solidarity to the poor and suffering”.
He said that the church in the country had brought “the healing balm of God’s mercy to… especially those most in need”.
On Tuesday, the Pope met de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and delivered a keynote speech that also staunchly defended ethnic rights. But he was criticised by human rights groups for not mentioning the Rohingya directly.
Phil Robertson, the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said: “The Pope missed an important opportunity to speak truth to power and publicly refute the unconscionable pressure by Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military to deny the Rohingya their identity.”
Later on Wednesday, the third day of his four-day visit, the Pope will meet Buddhist leaders. After Myanmar, he will move on to Bangladesh to meet Rohingya refugees in a symbolic gesture.