HONG KONG (SE): The media office at the Holy See has released details of the much talked about visit by Pope Francis to the Union of Myanmar, which is scheduled to take place from November 30 to December 2, followed by three days in Bangladesh.
Churches in both countries are made up of a tiny minority, with Myanmar only claiming around half a million members and Bangladesh around 400,000. The pope’s visit is being billed as an expression of care and concern for two of the smallest Churches in Asia, but the eyes of the world are looking far beyond that.
The biggest item of intrigue is how he will address the issue of what the United Nations has described as the genocide being committed against the Rohingya people by the Armed Forces of Myanmar.
The bishops of the country are already on record as having asked him not to mention them by name, for fear of a backlash that may be perpetrated against them and the Catholic Church by a population fearful of Islamist terrorism and determined to keep Buddhism intact as the thread that binds the ethnically diverse country together.
Although the pope did mention the Rohingya by name at a public address in Rome, how he will approach the sticky issue remains a matter of wonder, but he is bound to talk about it with the de facto parliamentary leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, in private.
They have already discussed something of the issue when she visited the Vatican in May this year, so it will not be new ground between them.
Also in some ways she has already responded, organising interfaith prayer vigils for peace across the country, an important yet risky move in a nation where the Buddhist religious leaders hold much sway.
Pope Francis’ schedule will follow the normal pattern of papal tours. On the first day he will travel to Naypyidaw to meet with the president, Htin Kyaw, the host of the papal visit.
He will also meet with Suu Kyi on the same day and then have a session with other civic authorities and finally the diplomatic corps.
These meetings give him much scope to move, as the Rohingya are not the only butt of violence against ethnic groups in a struggle that has been going on for decades.
The most significant may be the Kachin, who have formed their own independence army and establish a no go zone with its own seat of government in response to years of repression, they are also predominately Christian.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the violence across the northern states, to the extent that almost every parish is today also a refugee centre.
They have a high percentage of Christians among them within the majority Buddhist nation and their struggles for greater freedom and autonomy are usually interpreted as being a war on Buddhism.
The pope’s meeting with the Supreme Buddhist Council will no doubt see him speak about reconciliation, but the council contains its own contradictions, as it has joined the military in believing all other religions are anti-Buddhist, but condemned radicals who propose all out violence against them.
Finding sparks of hope to fan will be the challenge that Pope Francis takes up with all these bodies, as all contain fundamental contradictions.
The presence of an elected government with no constitutional connection to the military, which in many ways leaves Myanmar as the military dictatorship it became in 1961, is a difficult maze to navigate, but Charles Cardinal Bo, from Yangon, says Suu Kyi is engaging it with skill and courage, as with one slip she could be forced out putting the nation back to where it was two years ago.
There are no doubt strong interests that would benefit from this.
Australian Burma scholar, Ian McPhee, believes Suu Kyi did not attend a recent United Nations meeting in New York for fear the military would block her return to the country.
It is also the way of the pope to affirm, coax and encourage on his trips overseas, not condemn, criticise or lecture, so his meeting with the diplomatic corps may elicit discussions on the harsh condemnation that Suu Kyi has been the butt of in recent months, and the appropriateness of the paradigm it comes out of.
Pope Francis will hold a meeting with young people at the cathedral in Yangon and a public Mass at the Kyaikkasan Ground Stadium. He will also meet with the bishops.
In Bangladesh he will hold similar meetings, with a Mass at Suhrawardy Udyan (Racecourse) Park, during which he will ordain a priest.
Most of his other engagements will take place at the archbishop’s house in Dhaka and include Protestant, Hindu and Buddhist minorities in the majority Muslim nation.
He will no doubt support the efforts of the current administration to establish a secular government and a society which can peacefully accept people from any and all religions while still maintaining its Islamic culture, as in many ways, Bangladesh stands between being a secular state and falling into Islamist fundamentalism.
Pope Francis holds a particular interest for the tiny minority Churches of the world, as they lead the way in spreading the faith from a position of weakness through the enthusiasm of faith, rather than the power that is at their disposal.