RANGOON—The sight of Pope Francis greeting about 100,000 Burmese pilgrims on Wednesday was deeply moving, even for a long-since-lapsed Catholic like myself. Some of the pilgrims had journeyed for days down dirt roads and dilapidated mountain highways to reach the weather-beaten pavilions of Kyaikkasan Grounds, which once held a racetrack frequented by Burma’s moneyed elite. The first pilgrims had begun assembling at midnight and had sweated through a stifling morning, but the arrival of Pope Francis dispelled the torpor. Waving the flags of Burma and the Vatican, the faithful cheered as the pontiff graced them with his customary benevolent wave.
Two years ago, the Catholic Church celebrated its 500th anniversary in Burma and the first ever appointment of a Burmese cardinal. This year, Burma established formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See for the first time, following a meeting between de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Pope Francis. In another time, Wednesday’s mass would have been regarded as the pinnacle of the country’s first-ever papal visit.
Instead, it has been enveloped by the pall of the humanitarian crisis in Burma’s west, where more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled a military crackdown in the wake of militant attacks three months ago. Reports of indiscriminate violence, wanton destruction of Muslim villages, and systematic rape of Rohingya women have outraged the international community; both U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres have denounced the abuses as “ethnic cleansing.” Suu Kyi’s status as a human-rights icon has been irreversibly tarnished. Vatican sources have now told the media they believed the trip should have been postponed, as the weeks leading up to the pope’s visit became a referendum on whether he should speak up for the victims.