YANGON, Myanmar – Pope Francis urged Myanmar’s long-suffering people to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the hurt they have endured, preaching a message of forgiveness Wednesday to a huge crowd in his first public Mass in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Local authorities estimated some 150,000 people turned out at Yangon’s Kyaikkasan Ground park for the Mass, but the crowd seemed far larger. Catholics had to apply to attend through their local churches to enter the park venue, and many dressed in matching outfits or with hats bearing the pope’s image.
Francis has said his aim in coming to Myanmar is to minister to its Catholic community, which numbers around 660,000 people, or just over 1 percent of the population of about 52 million.
His trip has been overshadowed, though, by Myanmar’s military operations targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state. The crackdown, which has been described by the U.N. as a campaign of “textbook ethnic cleansing,” has drawn international condemnation.
In his first public comments on Tuesday, Francis told Suu Kyi and other government authorities that Myanmar’s future lay in respecting the rights of all its people – “none excluded” – but he refrained from mentioning the Rohingya by name. The violence, including the looting and burning of Rohingya villages, has resulted in more than 620,000 people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh in Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades.
In his homily Wednesday, Francis referred to the suffering that Myanmar’s ethnic and religious groups have endured, a reference to the decades of conflicts between Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and the military that continue today in parts of the country. Myanmar recently emerged from nearly half a century of military dictatorship, but minorities including the Kachins are still subject to discrimination and other forms of violence.
“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” Francis told the crowd in Italian that was translated into Burmese. Although he said the temptation is to respond with revenge, he urged a response of “forgiveness and compassion.”
“The way of revenge is not the way of Jesus,” he said, speaking from an altar erected on a traditional Buddhist-style stage.
Before Mass, Francis looped around the park in his open-sided popemobile, waving to the flag-waving crowds that continued to pour in as the service began. Local government officials and senior members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party were on hand, as were members of Myanmar’s mostly Christian Kachin minority, many of whom traveled two days by train from Kachin state to see the first pope ever to visit Myanmar.
Despite the high humidity, the scene at the park was joyous.
“I can’t express how happy I am,” said Henery Thaw Zin, a 57-year-old ethnic Karen from Hinthada, a four-hour drive from Yangon. “I can’t imagine, or can’t expect to get a chance like this again, not just in this life, but in my next life as well.”
The country’s first-ever cardinal, Charles Bo, told Francis that his visit had changed Catholics in Myanmar forever.
“A miracle has been enacted today,” Bo said at the end of Mass. “Thank you. And this little flock prays for you.”
Later Wednesday, Francis is to meet with Myanmar’s Buddhist leadership and then speak to the country’s Catholic bishops. He celebrates a Mass for young people Thursday and then heads to Bangladesh for the second leg of his weeklong South Asia tour.