YANGON, Myanmar – Pope Francis has landed in Myanmar, for what will be the first-ever papal visit to a country that is in an uphill battle to embrace democracy after six decades with a military government.
The pope’s arrival was very austere, including only the 20 Catholic bishops of the country and a group of some 200 children from parishes around Yangon. Some of the children were wearing colorful traditional outfits, while the rest had white shirts with the official logo of the visit and waved the Vatican flag, as they sang “Viva el papa.”
Denis, the woman tasked with coordinating the children, told Crux that they were all “very excited,” to be there welcoming Francis, and also for the visit as a whole. “I hope he brings us a message of peace,” a sentiment echoed by half a dozen airport personnel when they were asked about their expectations.
Francis’s visit to this majority-Buddhist nation with 52 million inhabitants has been described by observers as a political minefield, and his biggest diplomatic challenge to date. Above all, persecuted minorities, particularly the Rohingya Muslims, but also Christians, will be on his mind during the Nov. 27-30 visit.
Aware of the challenge the trip will present, Francis spelled out the purpose of his visit in a video-message he sent ahead of his arrival: “I come to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a message of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace,” he stated in “a word of friendship and greeting to all the people” of Myanmar.
Throughout his visit, he’ll encounter the local political class, including Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who became ‘state counselor’ – the de facto head of state – in the 2015 democratic vote; the head of the military; the Buddhist leadership; and a religious meeting with leaders of the other religions present in the country, that was added at the last minute.