General Min Aung Hlaing said after a brief, unscheduled meeting with the Pope on Monday that he had told the pontiff “there’s no religious discrimination in Myanmar.”
The Pope, who is the first Catholic leader to travel to the Buddhist-majority country, received the top general for a 15-minute meeting in Yangon soon after arrival.
The general is in charge of the country’s internationally-condemned military crackdown on ethnic Muslims in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. The United Nations (UN) has described that campaign as similar to “textbook ethnic cleansing.”
More than 600,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group have been forced to flee the state-sponsored violence to Bangladesh.
Myanmar is estimated to have about 700,000 Christians, which is another minority group in the country.
The pontiff, who has in the past used the term “Rohingya brothers and sisters,” has reportedly been advised not to use the term “Rohingya” — which means a resident of Rakhine — during his stay in Myanmar. That advice has reportedly been given by Myanmar’s sole Catholic cardinal so as not to invoke the rage of the country’s officials and Buddhist establishment against the minority Catholics.
Myanmar’s officials use the term “Bengali” for the Rohingya. The group, which has lived in Myanmar for decades, has been denied citizenship in both Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh.
On Tuesday, the Pope is due to meet Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Suu Kyi has refused to take any action to end the crackdown on the Muslim group.
She came to power in 2016 after five decades of rule by a junta.
Meanwhile, the Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh have voiced sorrow that the Pope has no decision to visit them there.
Refugees in the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh say they were “disappointed” by Pope Franceis’ schedule, who after visiting Myanmar is due in Dhaka but not at their camp.