Pope Francis has arrived in Myanmar on his first trip to the Southeast Asian nation, where tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees have faced brutal military crackdown in the past three months.
His trip comes as the Myanmar government is accused of “ethnically cleansing” its Rohingya Muslim minority, more than 600,000 of whom have taken shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The 80-year-old leader of Roman Catholic Church who has spoken against “persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters” in the past has been advised not use the word Rohingya.
Francis has previously condemned the atrocities, including mass killings and gang rapes, committed against the Muslim minority. He is also expected to meet with refugees in the coming days.
“Rohingya is a very sensitive topic, it is a very sensitive word here in Myanmar, particularly when it comes to dealing with the government,” said Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from outside the archbishop’s house in the country’s largest city of Yangon.
“The archbishop himself has advised the pope not to use that term here because it is something the government doesn’t recognise,” Heidler added.
According to the United Nations, security forces in Myanmar reportedly burned down entire villages and opened fire at people fleeing burning homes.
Myanmar’s ruling party has objected to the use of the term “Rohingya” to identify the mostly Muslim minority, demanding that they be called “Bengalis” despite the persecuted group living there for generations.
“But what a lot of people are saying here…what they really want is for him [Francis] to focus on peace in this nation,” the Al Jazeera correspondent said.
“Obviously, the international community expects him to focus on the Rohingya issue because that is a crisis viewed by the world…as ethnic cleansing,” he said.
The pontiff is expected to meet Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the military, who have instead blamed the Rohingya for the crisis.
The UN, as well as the United States, have said the violent actions taken by Myanmar’s armed forces and “local vigilantes” amount to “ethnic cleansing” against its Rohingya minority.
In 2012, Myanmar’s armed forces began to force Rohingya into refugee camps, both in Rakhine state and across the border into Bangladesh.
The ongoing crisis is being described as the world’s biggest forced exodus this year.
Last week Bangladesh government signed a deal with Myanmar on the repatriation of Rohingya but details of the deal have still not been made public.[Source: Al Jazeera]