Pope Preaches Forgiveness in First Mass in Myanmar

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center right, and Pope Francis, centre left, pose for media at a meeting with members of the civil society and diplomatic corps Tuesday in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Photo: Aung Shine Oo / Associated Press

YANGON — Pope Francis urged Myanmar’s long-suffering people to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the hurt they have endured, preaching a message of forgiveness Wednesday to a huge crowd in his first public Mass in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Local authorities estimated some 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.

Before Mass, Francis looped around the park in his open-sided popemobile, waving to the crowds that continued to pour in as the service began. Local government officials and senior members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party were on hand, as were members of Myanmar’s mostly Christian Kachin minority, wearing traditional dress.

Francis has said his aim in coming to Myanmar is to minister to its Catholic community, which numbers around 660,000 people, or just over 1 percent of the population of about 52 million.

His trip has been overshadowed, though, by Myanmar’s military operations targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority in northern Rakhine state. The crackdown, which has been described by the U.N. as a campaign of “textbook ethnic cleansing,” has drawn international condemnation.

In his first public comments on Tuesday, Francis told Suu Kyi and other government authorities that Myanmar’s future lay in respecting the rights of all its people — “none excluded” — but he refrained from mentioning the “Rohingya” by name. The violence, looting and burning of Rohingya Muslim villages has resulted in more than 620,000 people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh in Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades.

In his homily Wednesday, Francis referred to the suffering that Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities have endured, a reference to the decades of conflicts between Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and the military that continue today in parts of the country. Myanmar recently emerged from nearly a half-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 in Italian that was translated into Burmese. While the temptation is to respond with revenge, Francis urged instead 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.

Later Wednesday, Francis is to meet with Myanmar’s Buddhist leadership and then speak to the country’s Catholic bishops. He celebrates a Mass for young people Thursday and then heads to Bangladesh for the second leg of his South Asian tour.

Story: Nicole Winfield, Esther Htusan