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Pope Francis warned not to say ‘Rohingya’ on Myanmar trip

Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar on Monday amid the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis which has seen the country’s leaders accused of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Francis, who is due to speak with Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been warned not to even say the word Rohingya or risk causing a backlash against the country’s Christian minority.

He will hold Mass for 150,000 Catholics in Yangon before travelling to Bangladesh, where he will meet with some of the 620,000 Rohingya who have fled there.

Pope Francis was greeted by children as he arrived in Yangon on Monday amid Myanmar’s Rohingya refugee crisis

Pope Francis warned not to say 'Rohingya' on Myanmar trip

The pope is due to speak with army chief Min Aung Hlaing and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit to the Buddhist-majority country

Pope Francis warned not to say 'Rohingya' on Myanmar trip

Thousands of people travelled to Yangon to see the pope arrive, waving their national flag along with the Vatican City flag

But Francis has been warned that even using the word Rohingya could trigger a backlash against Myanmar's Christian minorities

But Francis has been warned that even using the word Rohingya could trigger a backlash against Myanmar’s Christian minorities

Authorities in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not recognise the Muslim Rohingya as citizens or as members of a distinct ethnic group with their own identity.

Instead they are usually referred to as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Vatican sources say some in the Holy See believe the trip was decided too hastily after full diplomatic ties were established in May during a visit by Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi’s reputation as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been tarnished because she has expressed doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failed to condemn the military.

‘I have great admiration for the pope and his abilities, but someone should have talked him out of making this trip,’ said Father Thomas Reese, a prominent American author and analyst at Religion News Service.

The pope has already used the word Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year.

Asked if he would say it in Myanmar, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Francis was taking the advice he had been given seriously, but added: ‘We will find out together during the trip … it is not a forbidden word’.

Pope Francis warned not to say 'Rohingya' on Myanmar trip

Pope Francis warned not to say 'Rohingya' on Myanmar trip

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said he does not know if Francis will say Rohingya while in Myanmar, adding: ‘It is not a forbidden word’

Francis's four-day trip to the region will also see him visit Bangladesh and meet with some of the 620,000 refugees who have fled there

Francis’s four-day trip to the region will also see him visit Bangladesh and meet with some of the 620,000 refugees who have fled there

The papal motorcade drives through downtown Yangon. Hundreds of police had been deployed in anticipation of protests, but activists did not show up

The papal motorcade drives through downtown Yangon. Hundreds of police had been deployed in anticipation of protests, but activists did not show up

Ah Khar women in traditional dress wait for the arrival of Pope Francis at Yangon airport

Ah Khar women in traditional dress wait for the arrival of Pope Francis at Yangon airport

A hardline Buddhist monk group previously known as Ma Ba Tha said it welcomed the pope’s visit but warned, without elaborating, of ‘a response’ if he spoke openly about the Rohingya.

‘I hope he doesn’t touch on sensitive issues that Myanmar people couldn’t accept,’ said Tawparka, a spokesman for the influential group, who goes by a single name. 

‘There’s no problem if he talks about Islam, but it’s unacceptable if he speaks about Rohingya and extreme terrorists.’

The Rohingya exodus from Rakhine state to Bangladesh’s southern tip began at the end of August, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week called the military operation ‘ethnic cleansing’ and threatened targeted sanctions for ‘horrendous atrocities’.

Myanmar’s government has denied most of the accusations made against it, and the army says its own investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops. 

But rights organisations have accused troops backed by Buddhist mobs of burning hundreds of villages and forcing more than half a million people to flee.

The military has been accused of killing hundreds of civilians while Rohingya women who made it to Bangldesh have told of how they were raped and abused. 

After leaving Rome, the pope told reporters on his plane: ‘They say it’s too hot (in Myanmar). I’m sorry, but let’s hope it will at least be fruitful.’

Francis is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, on the second leg of his trip. 

The pope's itinerary for his four-day trip to Myanmar, followed by a visit to Bangladesh 

The pope’s itinerary for his four-day trip to Myanmar, followed by a visit to Bangladesh 

Myanmar's army has been accused of 'ethnic cleansing' over their treatment of the Rohingya, which has seen hundreds of villages destroyed (pictured, a refugee camp in Bangladesh)

Myanmar’s army has been accused of ‘ethnic cleansing’ over their treatment of the Rohingya, which has seen hundreds of villages destroyed (pictured, a refugee camp in Bangladesh)

The military has been accused of killing hundreds of Rohingya civilians while women who managed to flee have told of rape and abuse at the hands of soldiers

The military has been accused of killing hundreds of Rohingya civilians while women who managed to flee have told of rape and abuse at the hands of soldiers

Ethnic minorities in traditional dress welcomed Francis at Yangon airport, and children presented him with flowers as he stepped off his plane.

He waved through an open window at dozens of children waving Vatican and Myanmar flags and T-shirts with the motto of the trip – ‘love and peace’ – as he set off in a light blue Toyota car for St. Mary’s Cathedral in the heart of the city.

Only about 700,000 of Myanmar’s 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands of them travelled by train and bus to Yangon, and they joined crowds at several roadside points along the way from the airport to catch a glimpse of the pope.

‘We come here to see the Holy Father. It happens once in hundreds of years,’ said Win Min Set, a community leader who brought a group of 1,800 Catholics from southern and western states of the country.

‘He is very knowledgeable when it comes to political affairs. He will handle the issue smartly,’ he said, referring to the sensitivity of the pope’s discussions about the Rohingya.

Large numbers of riot police were mobilised in the country’s main city but there were no signs of any protests.

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