THE VATICAN has officially confirmed that Pope Francis will visit Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh in November, as violence flares again between Rohingya militants and security forces in Burma’s restive Rakhine State.
With Catholic media reporting the rumoured trip for a number of weeks, the Holy See Press Office confirmed on Monday that Francis will visit Burma’s largest city Yangon and its capital Nay Pyi Taw from Nov 27 to 30 before going to Dhaka in Bangladesh from Nov 30 to Dec 2.
Pope Francis is a vocal advocate for the rights of Burma’s stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, and will become the first Pontiff in history to travel to the country.
The announcement came amid renewed violence against the Rohingya, after the militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) reportedly unleashed attacks at around 30 police posts with homemade explosives, knives and sticks.
Burma’s government has reported more than 100 deaths since last Friday. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that since Thursday some 5,200 people had entered Bangladesh from Rakhine State. At estimated 87,000 have fled into Bangladesh since violence began last October.
Many reportedly remain in “no man’s land” between Burma and Bangladesh as both countries ratchet up security along the border. The UNHCR released a statement on Tuesday calling for Bangladesh and other countries to open their borders as Rohingya asylum seekers flee violence.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said that it was “aware of several reported instances of people being prevented from entering Bangladesh. This poses very grave risk to the individuals affected.”
“Bangladesh has hosted refugees from Myanmar for decades, and UNHCR believes it is of the utmost importance that it continues to allow Rohingya fleeing violence to seek safety there,” he said.
While hundreds of thousands have fled in recent decades, some one million Rohingya remain in Rakhine State.
On Sunday, the Pope appealed for Burmese security forces to end violent persecution against the Rohingya Muslim minority during an address at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican.
“Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority,” he said as quoted by Vatican Radio.
“I would like to express my full closeness to them – and let all of us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of good will to help them, who shall give them their full rights.”
The visit to Burma comes after a thaw in relations between the Vatican and Burma, who established full diplomatic ties in May when the Pope met the de facto Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The theme of his Apostolic Journey to Burma is “Love & Peace.”
Burma commentator Benedict Rodgers wrote in the Catholic Herald on Tuesday that “I hope the Pope will also speak out for the Kachin, the Shan and others who are displaced by conflict and enduring grave abuses at the hands of the army.”
“Pope Francis’ visit has the potential to speak truth to power, to advance peace, justice and reconciliation, and to bring peoples of different religious and ethnic communities in Burma together,” he said.
The Pope’s Burma visit comes in place of an initial promise to go to India – a trip that has now been postponed until 2018. The last papal visit to Muslim-majority Bangladesh was by John Paul II in 1986.