Yangon: Pope Francis met Myanmar’s powerful Army Chief on Monday at the start of a highly sensitive trip to the majority-Buddhist country, which is under fire internationally for a brutal army crackdown that sparked an exodus of Rohingya Muslims.
The 80-year-old Pope, the first to travel to Myanmar, received senior General Min Aung Hlaing at the archbishop’s residence in Yangon, where the pontiff will stay during his visit.
The UN and US accuse the Army which the general controls of “ethnic cleansing” in a campaign that has driven more than 620,000 Rohingya from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh since August.
The military crackdown on the reviled Rohingya looms large over the pope’s four-day trip. He has called the Rohingya his “brothers and sisters” in repeated entreaties to ease their plight.
During a 15-minute meeting the Pontiff and the Army Chief spoke of the “great responsibility of the country’s authorities in this moment of transition”, the Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said.
Myanmar was ruled by a junta for five decades until a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi came to power last year.
Earlier on Monday Pope was welcomed at Yangon’s airport by children from different minority groups in bright bejewelled clothes, who gave him flowers and received a papal embrace in return.
Nuns in white habits were among devotees waving flags as his motorcade swept past the golden Shwedagon Pagoda.
“I saw the Pope... I was so pleased, I cried!” Christina Aye Aye Sein, 48, told AFP after the pope’s convoy received a warm but modest welcome.
“His face looked very lovely and sweet... He is coming here for peace.”
Myanmar’s estimated 700,000 Catholics make up just over one percent of the country’s 51 million people.