Papal Visit Brings Joy to Myanmar’s Tiny Catholic Population

Burmese girl performing dance in Yangon, Myanmar

Even though Catholics comprise just over one percent of the population of Myanmar, the faithful flocked to Yangon today to greet Pope Francis as he begins a six-day visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Vatican Radio is reporting on the excitement in the small sovereign state of Myanmar, also known as Burma, as Pope Francis’ arrived to begin his papal voyage. In spite of the stifling heat, thousands of people crowded into the city of Yangon with the hopes of catching a glimpse of the pope as he made his way from the airport to the home of the Archbishop where he will stay during his visit.

“They’d come from all across the country, especially from the northern states where the majority of Christians live, largely in isolated, rural or mountain villages,” reports Philippa Hitchens.

“Their excitement was palpable as they waved Vatican or Myanmar national flags, waiting for the pope to pass by. Many were dressed in traditionally embroidered tops and ‘longyis’, those brightly colored lengths of cloth that everyone – women and men – wear wrapped around them here. Others sported hats and T-shirts bearing the words ‘Love and Peace’, the logo for this trip, depicted above a multi-colored outline of the country, to signify the 135 ethnic groups that make up this south-east Asian country.”

The pope is wading into a real political powder keg in Myanmar just days after the U.S. accused the nation of ethnic cleaning of the Muslim Rohingya minority after the country’s military drove an estimated 620,000 from western Myanmar into Bangladesh within the last few months. Myanmar denies any wrongdoing despite testimony by refugees about widespread rape, murder and arson occurring within their population.

The situation is so delicate that the country’s archbishop Charles Maung Bo has warned the pope not even to mention the word Rohingya during his visit for fear that it could touch off a backlash against the country’s Christian minority.

The tiny Catholic population in this largely Buddhist nation has also endured its share of hardships. Catholics suffer from rampant discrimination that includes an inability to land leadership roles. They also live under constant threats of violence. Although the Catholic religion arrived in the country over 500 years ago, it is basically found only in rural areas of the country. When the socialist government took over in 1965, Catholic missionary schools, boarding houses and other public property was seized at gunpoint.

Although the situation has improved, “There are always challenges to stand up as Catholic and to have strong faith here,” said Rev. Mariano Soe Naing, a spokesperson for Myanmar’s Bishops’ Conference, to

The Church has slowly rebuilt itself and now runs about 300 boarding houses for children who can’t afford to go to school. This endeavor is carried on without any significant help from the government in a country that is among the poorest in the world. Because of the rampant discrimination, there is little hope that Catholics can get into a position of power within the government to effect change.

“To be honest, if you are a Christian in this country, you will never get promoted,” Rev. Mariano said. “There are no Catholics in the government administration or in any significant leadership positions.”

But on this day, inside the Archbishop’s residence, Catholics were filled with joy and peace.

“Inside the garden of the archbishop’s house, a group of eager Catholics (including a couple of nuns, who stood out from the colorful crowd in their white habits and veils) were energetically dancing and singing,” Hitchens writes. “As the blue car, carrying Pope Francis swept through the gates, their cries of excitement rose to fever pitch, as he stepped out and began walking up the path to the cream-colored, colonial style residence.”

The pope will rest for the remainder of the day and will travel to the Myanmar capital of Nay Pyi Taw tomorrow where he will be welcomed by the president and the Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. His first public address, which will be given to government officials and diplomats at a nearby convention center, will not be open to the public.

On Wednesday, the pope will celebrate an open-air Mass at a racecourse which once served as a detention center during the darkest years of military rule.

From there, he will head to Bangladesh. a predominantly Muslim nation where only 375,000 Catholics make up just a tiny fraction of the population of 158 million.

Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, the archbishop of Dhaka, Bangladesh, is hoping the visit will be an opportunity to emphasize the causes of the poor who need blessing and comfort and “for highlighting peace and harmony.”

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