Pope to meet head of Myanmar army, Rohingya refugees: Vatican

By Philip Pullella
Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis will meet the head of Myanmar's army and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, both late additions to a tour of the two countries next week.

Human rights monitors and U.N. officials have accused Myanmar's military of atrocities, including mass rape, against the stateless Rohingya during operations that followed insurgent attacks on 30 police posts and an army base.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said on Wednesday that the pope would meet army head Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on Nov. 30 in a church residence in Yangon.

Myanmar Cardinal Charles Maung Bo had talks with the pope in Rome on Saturday and suggested that he add a meeting with the general to the schedule for a trip that is proving to be one of the most politically sensitive since Francis was elected in 2013. Both the pope and the general agreed.

Some 600,000 Rohingya refugees, most of them Muslim and from Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, have fled to Bangladesh.

Burke said a small group of Rohingya refugees would be present at an inter-religious meeting for peace in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka on Dec 1.

Myanmar's government has denied most of the claims of atrocities against the Rohingya, and the army last week said its own investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.

The pope will separately meet the country's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in the capital Naypyitaw, on Nov. 28 in an encounter that was already on the schedule.

Briefing reporters on the trip, Burke gave no details of how the Rohingya who will meet the pope would be chosen. A source in Dhaka said the refugees would be able to tell the pope about their experiences.

Both events were not on the original schedule of the Nov. 26-Dec. 2 trip.

Bo, the cardinal from Myanmar, has advised the pope not to use the word Rohingya while in Myanmar because it is incendiary in the country where they are not recognized as an ethnic group.

Burke said the pope took the advice seriously but added: "We will find out together during the trip ... it is not a forbidden word".

(Reporting By Philip Pullella, additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in Dhaka; Editing by Keith Weir and John Stonestreet)