Pope Francis met Monday with Myanmar’s military chief before the official start of his visit to the Southeast Asian country.
The Vatican did not provide many details of the Pope’s 15-minute “courtesy visit” with General Min Aung Hlaing. The general oversees security in Rakhine state, where the military has conducted so-called “clearance operations” against Rohingya Muslims.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the Pope and the general “spoke of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition.”
The meeting took place in the residence of Cardinal Charles Bo, the archbishop of Yangon. He has resisted international pressure to condemn Myanmar’s military operations against the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing.”
After the meeting, the general’s office said in a statement on Facebook “Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all.” It also said the military “performs for the peace and stability of the country.”
The meeting was originally planned for Wednesday, after the Pope’s scheduled meeting with the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Vatican did not say why the meeting took place earlier than planned.
Myanmar’s Catholic Church has publicly urged the Pope to avoid using the term “Rohingya” because the group is not a recognized minority in the country.
The Pope’s spokesman did not say if the Pope used the term in his meeting with the general.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church, however, has previously prayed for the Rohingya Muslims, calling them his « brothers and sisters.” He has also spoken out against violence in Rakhine state.
Pope Francis’s visit was planned before the latest wave of violence in August, in which a group of Rohingya militants attacked security positions in Rakhine.
Myanmar’s military responded with brutal attacks that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.
More than 620,000 Rohingya have since fled to Bangladesh, the next stop on the Pope’s Asian trip.
The Pope’s schedule does not include a visit to a refugee camp. But he is expected to meet with a small group of Rohingya in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.