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Pope Francis Becomes First Pontiff To Visit Myanmar

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Pope Francis has landed in Myanmar, making him the first pope to ever visit that country.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And he has a very busy schedule coming up. The pope is going to talk separately with military leaders and also with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's civilian leader. He's also going to meet with top Buddhist monks, including some hardline nationalists who have been supporting the attacks against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims. The United States has described these attacks as ethnic cleansing.

MARTIN: So obviously, this is a delicate trip. Among those watching how it's going to go is Father Thomas Reese. He writes for the Religion News Service. And he serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He's in our studios this morning. Father Reese, thanks so much for joining us.

THOMAS REESE: Good morning.

MARTIN: How far do you expect Pope Francis to go in condemning the treatment of the Rohingya? Will he at all?

REESE: Well, this is going to be a very difficult challenge for him. The government and the military have denied that there's any ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya going on in Myanmar. And yet we know from satellite photos - we know from journalists and human rights groups on the ground that this has been a very terrible situation. The persecution that the Rohingya have suffered for decades in Myanmar has been harsh and terrible. And so we would expect the pope to speak out in their defense, to say that this must stop and that they should be treated well.

But the problem is there are also Christians in Myanmar that have suffered persecution. And so some people fear that there could be a real backlash against them or their persecution would increase. And they could suffer even more after the pope left. As a result, the cardinal - the leader of the Catholic Church in Myanmar has asked the pope not even to use the word Rohingya.

MARTIN: Wow.

REESE: So this makes his situation very difficult. Does he take that chance of being prophetic in seeing the Christians persecuted? Or does he remain silent? And then he could suffer condemnation from human rights groups around the world for not saying anything.

MARTIN: Right - because if he goes and doesn't say something, is he in some way elevating or or vindicating the military regime for their actions?

REESE: Well, this is the challenge that he faces. I mean, even the leader of Myanmar, who received a Nobel Prize, is in total denial about the ethnic cleansing that's going on there. So what does he do? Certainly, behind closed doors, he will be raising these issues and arguing for them. And certainly, when he goes to Bangladesh, he's going to visit the refugees there and bring the attention of the international community to the horrendous conditions that they're living under. But, you know, to say something in public that could agitate these radical Buddhist monks to lead a persecution against the small minority of Christians could be very difficult.

MARTIN: Overall, you think it's a good thing, though, that he go, even symbolically.

REESE: Well, this pope is an amazing person. If he is successful and can bring about some degree of reconciliation, then I wouldn't be surprised to see him walk on water.

MARTIN: Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and analyst for Religion News Service. Father Reese, thank you so much.

REESE: Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET'S "AHEYM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.