Pope Francis spoke of the need for “forgiveness” and avoiding “revenge” at a mass attended by tens of thousands of people in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, on Wednesday.
He skirted direct mention of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority for the second time in his four-day visit, after talking generally of religious tolerance at a meeting with diplomats Tuesday.
Some 150,000 Catholics from across the country gathered at Kyaikkasan sports ground for the service, some arriving the night before to ensure their places.
“Today I am very blessed — not only me but all of Myanmar,” said Sister Lucy, a 22-year-old nun from far-flung Chin state, who got to the area at 5 a.m.
“We never dreamed that we would see his Excellency, but today we can see him,” she said.
In his first public mass in the country, Francis spoke of the many people in Myanmar who “bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible.
“We think that healing can come from anger or revenge. Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus,” he said.
The pope, an outspoken advocate for refugees, has defied the expectations of many in the West, who anticipated he would make public remarks on the Rohingya crisis.
More than 620,000 Rohingya, members of a long-persecuted Muslim minority, have fled to Bangladesh since August following a massive army crackdown.
Myanmar dismisses their stories of mass rape and killings as exaggerated, and the army has cleared itself of any abuses.
Previously, Francis has been an advocate for the minority, referring to them on occasion as “our Rohingya brothers and sisters.”
But papal advisers have counseled him not to speak about the issue while in Myanmar, for fear of a backlash against the some 650,000 Catholics in the country.
“This is the first time the pope is coming,” said Robert Nathan, one of about 70 Catholics born in Myanmar who traveled back for the celebrations.
He said Francis was right not to raise the plight of the Rohingya. “The government needs to sort out that problem,” he said.
But human rights advocates have urged him to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya, who are widely reviled as illegal immigrants within Myanmar.
“If the pope doesn’t use the word Rohingya, racist nationalists will see it as a victory, if he does, they will be upset and may protest. Which is better?” Mark Farmaner, head of Burma Campaign UK, said on Twitter.
Many in the audience in Yangon were happy he chose not to reference the crisis. He has said his primary purpose for the visit was to support the Christian population. The country recently established diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
Sister Lucy, the nun from Chin state, said she was happy Francis endorsed the charity work of Catholics in the country in his speech on Wednesday.
“He’s encouraging and appreciating. It helps us to keep up our work,” she said.