The Pope has arrived in Myanmar for a trip expected to be overshadowed by claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the country’s government.
During the first ever papal visit to the country, Pope Francis will meet civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been widely condemned over the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
In recent months, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh amid a police crackdown which the UN has described as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.
Pope Francis will also hold talks with Myanmar army chief Min Aung, before travelling to Bangladesh where he is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees.
During his time in Myanmar, the Pope’s speeches will be closely monitored by Buddhist hardliners for mention of the Rohingya, who the country’s government refers to as Bengalis – alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The pontiff has repeatedly spoken out against the plight of the minority Muslim group and referred to them as his “brothers and sisters”.
Shortly before leaving Rome on Sunday night, Pope Francis delivered an address in which he asked followers to “be with me in prayer so that, for these peoples, my presence is a sign of affinity and hope.”
On his arrival at Yangon Airport, the Pope was greeted by local Catholic officials and children in traditional dress.
Later, thousands lined the streets of the city, where the Catholic leader will deliver an open-air mass to more than 150,000.
Just over 1% (660,000) of Myanmar’s 52 million population are Catholic – making it one of the country’s smallest religious minority groups.
The pontiff’s visit comes days after Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a deal to allow hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to return home.
Myanmar’s government said it was “ready take them back” as soon as authorities were supplied with refugees’ personal details.
Earlier this month, Sky News footage showing emaciated women and newborn babies who had been dumped on beaches and left to die prompted discussion over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya.
Leading charities later warned of exploitation, trafficking and prostitution taking place against vulnerable Rohingya women and children in Bangladeshi camps.
Myanmar has insisted its crackdown against the minority group was aimed at rooting out “terrorists” behind an attack on 30 police posts in late August, which left 12 members of the security forces dead.