Aye Ne Win, grandson of former dictator General Ne Win, disguised himself as a pope for Halloween. Nationalists accuse Pope Francis of collaborating with the Rohingya. The Church in Myanmar downplays the controversy. Preparations are underway for the apostolic journey. Buddhist monks will also welcome the faithful.
Yangon (AsiaNews) – Burmese Buddhists have expressed their closeness and solidarity to Myanmar’s small Catholic community, which has recently been the object of provocations ahead of Pope Francis’s upcoming apostolic visit to the country (27-30 November).
Recently, pictures showing Aye Ne Win, grandson of former Myanmar dictator General Ne Win, dressed up as the pope imparting "blessings" at a Halloween party (picture 2), have sparked a controversy.
Catholics have expressed their outrage on social media, and received support from Buddhists who also feel offended.
For some, such mockery is an attempt by some military and extremist groups to antagonise the Christian minority on the eve of the pope's historic journey to the Asian nation.
Some in the military and among Buddhist nationalist groups, like the Ma Ba Tha movement, have taken to the Internet to express their loathing of the papal visit. They accuse the Holy Father of collaborating with the Rohingya Muslim minority.
To back their views, these groups have circulated online pictures of Pope Francis washing the feet of inmates in Paliano prison last April, one of whom was a Muslim.
The extremists also cannot forget the appeal the pope made in favour of the Rohingya in his Angelus on 27 August, which triggered harsh criticism in Myanmar.
Most are critical of the pope's call for prayer for the recognition of the rights of the Muslim minority, much hated by many ethnic Burmese. The pope’s use of the word "Rohingya" has met with great disfavour in public opinion.
Since the group is not recognised as one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups, they are usually referred to as Rakhine Muslims based on their state of residence.
The Catholic Church in Myanmar, which has played a major role in supporting the difficult process of national reconciliation undertaken by democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has not responded to the latest provocations by extremists and has tried instead to calm the situation.
"The incident involving Ne Win's grandson is regrettable,” said Fr Marian Soe Naing, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) and director of its Office for Social Communication (CBCM-OSC), speaking to AsiaNews. “However bad it was, we are talking about a party with masks, and that’s that.”
By contrast, “Relations with our fellow Buddhist compatriots is very good; there is no hostility. There is nothing to fear from the pope's visit. Problems could arise if the Holy Father mentions 'Rohingya'. This would give extremists a pretext to cause tensions. "
Meanwhile, as the Catholic community gets ready to welcome Pope Francis with “devotion and prayer", work on the visit is well underway.
"Right now, we are focused on planning the arrival of those who will take part in the solemn Mass, which the pope will celebrate at the Yangya Kyaikkasan Ground in Yangon on 29 November,” Fr Soe Naing said.
“All of our parishes will be available for accommodations. The night before the service, almost all Buddhist monasteries will open their doors to our faithful. We expect more than 100,000 Catholics during the Holy Father's visit."
As a sign of the Catholic Church's commitment to national dialogue and reconciliation, a few hours after the Mass, Pope Francis will hold a meeting with the Supreme Sangha Council, the highest Buddhist authority in the country, at the Kaba Aye Centre.
"We checked the sites and have made arrangements with Buddhist leaders for the meeting and the make-up of the delegations. Unfortunately, due to the pope's official commitments with Myanmar authorities in Nay Pyi Taw, the meeting with all of the country's religious leaders on 30 November was cancelled," said the CBCM spokesman.
“Aye Ne Win’s disguise has provoked a harsh reaction among Catholics on the Internet, especially young people,” said Lawrence Jangma Gam, an AsiaNews contributor. "However, tensions are only on social media. The extremists rely on Buddhist ignorance about Christians, but there is no serious threat to the security of the Holy Father.”
“The civilian government, which has recently had important meetings with the Holy See, will act as guarantor of the apostolic journey. The military is in charge of all security issues and I do not think it will allow something to happen since the country is already under strong international pressure over the Rakhine crisis.”
“Perhaps some nationalist groups will organise demonstrations against the pope, but ordinary people are not against the apostolic journey. The pope will be protected by his personal security detail, and Bishops’ Conference is also taking its own steps.”