Pope Francis defended after criticism by Rohingya Muslim campaigners

The Vatican has defended Pope Francis after human-rights groups expressed disappointment he did not publicly acknowledge the plight of Rohingya Muslims during a visit to Burma.

Spokesman Greg Burke said Francis took seriously advice given to him by the local Catholic Church, which urged him to toe a cautious line and not even refer to the Rohingya by name during his trip to the country.

The majority of people in Burma reject the term because the ethnic group is not a recognised minority in the country.

Mr Burke said: "The moral authority of the pope stands. You can criticise what's said, what's not said, but the pope is not going to lose moral authority on this question here."

The comments came as Francis neared the midpoint of his week-long trip, which was planned before the Burmese military launched what it called "clearance operations" in Rakhine state in response to attacks by a group of Rohingya militants against security positions in August.

The campaign, denounced by the UN and the US as "ethnic cleansing", has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya to flee in the worst Asian refugee crisis in decades.

Rohingya Muslims have reported entire villages in Burma being burned and looted, and women and girls raped.

Mr Burke noted that the Holy See had only recently established diplomatic relations with Burma, that the Catholic Church in the country was small and that the Holy See's broader gains were to "build bridges" with the predominantly Buddhist nation as it emerges from decades of military dictatorship.

In the past, Francis has strongly condemned the "persecution of our Rohingya brothers," denounced their suffering because of their faith and called for them to receive "full rights".

He has defined his papacy by his outspoken defence of refugees and advocacy for society's most marginal and disenfranchised.

While he called in his first major speech on Tuesday for all of Burma's ethnic groups to have their human rights respected, his failure to specify the Rohingya crisis drew criticism from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Rohingya themselves.

Francis had a busy day stressing a message of forgiveness, unity and healing of old wounds during an open-air Mass, an audience with Myanmar's senior Buddhist monks and during an encounter with his own Catholic bishops.

Local authorities estimated that about 150,000 people turned out for the Mass in Yangon's Kyaikkasan Ground park. but the crowd seemed far larger and included faithful bearing flags from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, among other places.

Francis wraps up his visit to Burma on Thursday with a Mass for young people in the cathedral before heading to Bangladesh for the second and final leg of his weeklong South Asia tour.


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