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Pope Francis travels to Yangon and Dhaka, to meet Asia’s smaller Churches

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Vatican City (AsiaNews) – The Holy See’s press office today announced the detailed program of Pope Francis visit to Myanmar (26-30 November) and Bangladesh (November 30 – December 2).

In both countries, the Pontiff will, as always, have a day dedicated to official diplomatic and political meetings; one day for meetings with the Church and with religious representations.

On 28 November, in Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital of Myanmar, Francis will meet Htin Kyaw, the first civilian president after nearly 50 years of military dictatorship; then will be the turn of Aung San Suu Kyi, State Advisor and Foreign Minister, and especially Democratic leader and symbol of the new season in Myanmar. They will be followed by a meeting with the authorities, leaders of civil society and the diplomatic corps.

The first two will be a firm support for the country’s democracy, after decades under a military junta that plundered and sold out the country’s wealth, engaging in struggles and violence against all minorities. It is likely that the Pope rather than specifically talking about Rohingya, the Islamic minority who have fled to Bangladesh on the back of a wave of military led violence and persecution, will speak about national reconciliation efforts with all minorities (Shan, Karen, Kaya, Chin, Kachin, Naga, etc.) who were also victims of attacks and killing, and which the “Lady” wants to implement, hindered precisely by the army’s “divide and rule” policy.

In recent months the Rohingya crisis has led many world leaders to accuse Aung San Suu Kyi. The meeting with the diplomatic corps will be important in rebalancing these charges and push the international community to greater solidarity with the country and with its desire for democracy.

The meeting with the Supreme Buddhist Council, too, is an explicit message to national reconciliation. All the struggles of minorities have often been interpreted – first and foremost by the military – as a war against Buddhism and against the nation. Yet, the Supreme Council has condemned the belligerent proclamations of monk Wirathu – a supporter of a war against Muslims – and its organization to “protect race and religion.”

Encounters with Catholics include a Mass at the Kyaikkasan Ground Stadium and one with the bishops. It strikes the next day that the meeting with the young people takes place in St.Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon, which contains several thousand people. This is another important sign of the journey: Pope Francis will not meet crowds of Catholics because they are only about 1% of the population in Myanmar: about 500,000 out of 51 million. But he will enjoy the enthusiasm of their faith: for these Christians, most of whom come from minorities, the Catholic Church has been the fundamental help to get out of poverty, hunger, illness and illiteracy.

Meetings with Catholics in Bangladesh (390 thousand, 0.2% on a population of 150 million) will take place in small places, with the exception of Mass at Suhrawardy Udyan Park on December 1st, when the pope will ordain a priest. Even the meeting with representatives of religions (Hindu, Buddhist, Protestant minorities, as well as representatives of Sunni Islam, majority) will take place in the garden of the archbishopric of Dhaka.

The encounter with religions, which wants to show Bangladesh’s ability to co-exist with different faiths, follows those with the authorities, the diplomatic corps and especially the visit to the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum, where the remains of Mujibur Rahman are kept, father of the nation and of the current premier, Mrs. Sheikh Hasina. Mujibur Rahman has sought with all his strength to build a secular country, capable of accepting every faith from Pakistan, with strong Islamic colors. Bangladesh is still today at the crossroads between secularism and fundamentalist Islam, fuelled by the influence and aid from Saudi Arabia.

One may wonder why Pope Francis wants to visit these churches that are so small and so fragile. A PIME missionary in Bangladesh said the pontiff “prefers peripheries and Bangladesh is a periphery of the world” with a population density of more than a thousand inhabitants per kmq (the 7th country in the world) and a level of poverty of 31%.

In Myanmar, according to Card. Charles Bo, there is “an insignificant Church”, often marginalized by poverty and being a minority among minorities. It remains that these “insignificant” churches for the world evangelize by the enthusiasm of faith, not by the power of their means, and this is a dream of Pope Francis (“How I would like a simple and poor Church” at the beginning of his pontificate).

Francis’ message goes beyond these “peripheries”: what he will say to civil society in Myanmar and Bangladesh may be a hint to Asia and the great neighbors, India and China, still blocking a visit by the Pope from Rome. In emphasizing the secular nature of the state and the possibility of peaceful coexistence of religions, the Pope suggests a path of peace beyond fundamentalism, of a nationalist and Hindu type, as is the case in India, or of the atheistic and oligarchic type of China.

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