The Pope urged Myanmar’s people to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the hurt they have endured, preaching a message of forgiveness yesterday to a huge crowd in his first public mass in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Authorities estimated 150,000 people turned out at Yangon’s Kyaikkasan Ground park for the mass, but the crowd seemed far larger.
Catholics had to apply to attend through their local churches to enter the park venue, and many dressed in matching outfits or with hats bearing the Pope’s image.
Francis has said his aim in coming to Myanmar was to minister to its Catholic community — about 660,000 people, or just over 1 per cent of the population of about 52 million.
The Pope’s trip has been overshadowed by Myanmar’s military operations targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state. The crackdown, which has been described by the UN as a campaign of “textbook ethnic cleansing”, has drawn international condemnation.
In his first public comments on Tuesday night (AEDT), Francis told Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other government authorities that the country’s future lay in respecting the rights of all its people — “none excluded” — but he refrained from mentioning the Rohingya by name.
The violence, including the looting and burning of Rohingya villages, has resulted in more than 620,000 people fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh in Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades.
In his homily yesterday, Francis referred to the suffering that Myanmar’s ethnic and religious groups have endured, a reference to the decades of conflicts between ethnic minorities and the military that continue.
Myanmar recently emerged from almost half a century of military dictatorship, but minorities including the Kachins are still subject to discrimination and other forms of violence.
“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” Francis told the crowd.
Although he acknowledged the temptation was to respond with revenge, he urged a response of “forgiveness and compassion”.
“The way of revenge is not the way of Jesus,” he said, speaking from an altar erected on a traditional Buddhist-style stage.