The meeting with Min Aung Hlaing wasn't initially on the Pope's schedule; however, during a recent visit to Rome Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon recommended that a meeting with the military leader be added.
Pope Francis took the cardinal's advice and scheduled the meeting for Nov. 30 at the archbishop's house in Yangon, where he is staying while in Burma. However, the meeting was bumped up, and took place on the first day of Francis' visit, shortly after he landed.
Lasting a total of 15 minutes, including conversation via interpreters and an exchange of gifts, the private encounter was the Pope's first official meeting of the trip. Several of Min Aung Hlaing's deputies were present.
According to Burke, the two spoke of “the great responsibility of the country's authorities in this moment of transition.”
Min Aung Hlaing said on Twitter that he told Pope Francis, “there's no religious discrimination” in the country, and “there is the freedom of religion.”
That Francis bumped the trip to the first day of his visit, when nothing else was scheduled, is noteworthy, and will be important to keep in mind as he meets with Aung San Suu Kyi, the president, and civil authorities Nov. 28. His words during the meeting are sure to carry a weighty significance.
The term 'Rohingya'
With this political backdrop in mind, another thing to look out for is whether or not Pope Francis will use the term Rohingya to describe the largely Muslim ethnic group who reside in Burma's Rakhine State.
His visit comes amid an uptick in state-supported violence against the Rohingya, which in recent months has reached staggering levels, causing the United Nations to declare the situation “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
With an increase in persecution in their home country, many of the Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, with millions camping along the border as refugees. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled Burma for Bangladesh in recent months.
However, despite widespread use of the term Rohingya in the international community, the term is controversial within Burma.
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The Burmese government refuses to use the term, and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship since Burma gained independence in 1948.
Because of the touchy nature of the term, Cardinal Bo also suggested to the Pope that he refrain from using the word on the ground, arguing that extremists in the area are trying to rouse the population by using the term, making the risk of a new interreligious conflict ever-more present, with Christians in the crossfire.
According to Bo, the correct term to use is “Muslims of the Rakhine State.” He also stressed that other minorities in Burmese territory face persecution and displacement, including the Kachin, Kahn, and Shahn peoples, yet their plight often goes unreported.
Burke said the recent worsening of the humanitarian situation in Burma will be a strong element of the Pope's visit, and that Francis is coming “at a key time” in this sense.
However, while the situation of the Rohingya has escalated in over the past few months, Burke said it wasn't the primary reason for the Pope's visit. “The trip was going to happen anyway,” he said. Recent developments have now “drawn attention to it, but it was going to happen anyway.”
Burke himself used term “Rohingya” to describe the persecuted Muslim minority, saying “it's not a forbidden term” in the Vatican, and the Pope himself has used it before. But Cardinal Bo made a suggestion that Francis “took into account,” he said, adding, “we'll see together” whether or not Pope Francis uses the term during his visit.