IN his last full day in Myanmar, Pope Francis sought to pivot away from politics and the disappointment over his decision to avoid mentioning the persecuted Rohingya Muslims and to find safer ground in Catholic liturgy and interreligious dialogue.
But, even as the pope removed his shoes to meet with monks in a pagoda and celebrated Mass at a colonial-era race track, his decision not to directly address one of the world’s most acute humanitarian disasters casts a pall over what the Vatican sought to portray as a historic visit of bridge-building with a fledgling democracy.
“Nobody ever said Vatican diplomacy is infallible,” the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, said at a news briefing in Yangon on Wednesday. He said no one in the Vatican had second-guessed the pope’s decision to avoid mentioning the Rohingya or considered pulling the plug on the visit, which even the pope’s supporters consider a tactical blunder for a usually politically sure-footed pontiff.
“He is not afraid of minefields,” Burke said, bristling at the notion that the trip had damaged the moral authority that is the pope’s most powerful diplomatic asset.
“People are not expected to solve impossible problems. You’ll see him going ahead and you can criticise what is said and what is not said. But, the pope is not going to lose moral authority on this question here.”
Myanmar presented the pope with a treacherous diplomatic tight wire. The world expected a global figure who has championed the downtrodden to speak out for the more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh to escape a military campaign of killings, rape and arson. But, local bishops urged him to avoid addressing the issue out of concern that it could aggravate the problem and endanger the small Christian minority.
In the news conference, Burke suggested that the pope had privately raised the issue with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose own reputation has sunk with the weight of the crisis.
“He is a very free man,” Burke said, when asked if the pope had brought it up.
But, the pope was not willing to publicly air the issue. As a result, his bishops and spokesman were, remarkably, left to downplay his influence to bring about change and depict him as manipulated by the country’s powerful interests.
At the news conference, Bishop John Hsane Hgyi of Pathein, Myanmar, was asked whether the pope had requested that he and other prelates concern themselves with the crisis in western Rakhine State.
“It might be a little bit beyond his authority,” the bishop said, to do so.
Bishop Hsane Hgyi went on to cast doubt on whether any ethnic violence was actually taking place: “I don’t know whether it is true or not.” (“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Khin Maung Myint, a self-described Rohingya Muslim who attended the news conference.)
And asked why the pope’s schedule changed at the last minute to meet with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing before meeting with Suu Kyi, Burke said the general had moved up the meeting.
“I’m sure the pope would have preferred meeting the general after he had done the official visits,” Burke said.
Burke suggested that the pope might be more at liberty to talk about the Rohingya when he meets with refugees in Bangladesh later, and argued that his silence did not take away from his previous championing — from the Vatican — of the Muslim minority as “brothers”.
It was likely not the defensive note that the Vatican had hoped the Myanmar leg of the trip would end on.
Earlier in the day, Francis rallied tens of thousands of Catholics of that tiny Christian population at an open-air Mass at Yangon’s Kyaikkasan Ground, a faded colonial-era horse track where locals now play soccer and practise thaing, a local martial art.
In his homily, Francis referred to the deep discrimination suffered by the country’s many ethnic and religious groups.
“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” the pope said, urging them to resist the temptation of revenge and seek “forgiveness and compassion”.
The closest mention of the conflict in Rakhine State was a prayer read by one of the faithful in the Karen language during the Mass.
In the afternoon, the pope went to Yangon’s Kaba Aye Pagoda, where he said he hoped Buddhist wisdom would help “heal the wounds of conflict that through the years have divided people of different cultures, ethnicities and religious convictions”.
Francis said the level of injustice, conflict and inequality was “especially pronounced” in these times, and expressed admiration for those in Myanmar “who live in accord with the religious traditions of Buddhism”, which he listed as “the values of patience, tolerance and respect for life”.
Not all monks feel that way. Some ultranationalist Buddhist monks who are part of a group called the Patriotic Association of Myanmar have fuelled the hatred against the Rohingya, prompting the government to ban the monks from preaching, though their message has spread via Facebook.
In May, Buddhist vigilantes raided a Muslim neighbourhood in Yangon, where they believed Rohingya were hiding. Weeks later, the state-run committee that Francis met on Wednesday banned organisations operating under the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, also known as Ma Ba Tha. But, in the ensuing weeks, Buddhist mobs killed more than 200 Muslims in the nation’s heartland. NYT