Thousands of the faithful broke the silence of the ghost town that is Myanmar’s capital city to welcome Pope Francis on the second day of his historic visit to the embattled nation.
Colours and music filled the streets all the way to Naypyidaw airport, with exuberant Christians donning their t-shirts with the logo of Francis’ visit, which depicts a heart drawn in Myanmar’s colours, containing a map of the country and a picture of the Pope with a dove.
People came from miles away to welcome the Pope with Vatican flags and signs reading: “We love you Papa Francis.”
The streets leading up to the airport are over a mile long, and they were filled with devout Catholics happily waiting for the Pontiff in temperatures over a sweltering 30 degrees heat.
“We are so happy he has come to us, right now we need his wisdom to guide our country,” said Ms Naing, who travelled from Mandalay, over 300km away, and wears traditional Myanmar garb which comes in many colours, hers being red, white and black.
There are about 659,000 Catholics in Myanmar, over 1% of the total population of 51 million, while about 88% of the population is Buddhist.
There has been much speculation about whether the Pontiff would use the politically-charged term ‘Rohingya’, which is a group of mainly Muslim people that have been forced out of their country in their hundreds of thousands through a brutal military campaign.
Over 600,000 of the Rohingya people, which the Pope has previously described as his “brothers and sisters” have fled to Bangladesh, with many staying in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, close to the border between the two countries.
Last week Myanmar State Counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bangladesh officials which will put into motion efforts to help the displaced people return to Myanmar. However, the particulars of the agreement still have to be resolved, such as when the repatriation will begin.
The Pope called for respect for all religious groups and ethnicities in his address in the International Conference Centre in Naypyidaw, which was lavishly decorated with red carpets and flowers. The motto of his visit is ‘Love & Peace’, which made his mention of the Panglong Peace Conference and the establishment of the United Nations after two World Wars all the more relevant.
Although he did not mention the Rohingya people specifically, something senior Myanmar prelate Cardinal Charles Maung Bo had warned against before his visit, as recognising the group in any way could spur radical Buddhist movements in the country to violence, he did call for respect for all ethnic groups.
The Pope said: “The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, and respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”
Racism and discrimination is still an issue in Myanmar, with Muslims often being described as ‘Kala’, a derogatory term that rose to prominence after the military’s coup d’état in 1962.
The Pontiff said that religion “need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity and forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building”.
He added that religion can be a force for peace, especially when religious leaders work together.
“Your Holiness, the gifts of compassion and encouragement that you bring to us will be treasured,” said Aung San Suu Kyi during her address at the conference.
“We are proud and happy that you have come to our country a mere six months after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Myanmar. She added that she began her education in a St Francis Convent in Rangoon, and joked that “it makes me fancy that I’m entitled to special blessings from Your Holiness”.
“But all the blessings you confer will be shared by all of us that we may be able to spread goodwill and joy throughout our land.”