Myanmar's military chief said he told Pope Francis that there is "no religious discrimination" in his country, where violence against Rohingya Muslims has been termed "ethnic cleansing" by the United States.
"Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all," Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said in a Facebook post by his office. "Likewise our military too... (it) performs for the peace and stability of the country."
Pope Francis met with the military chief Monday as he began his trip to the southeast Asian country to discuss violence in Rakhine state that has caused over 620,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee into neighboring Bangladesh.
After the 15 minute meeting, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the two "discussed the great responsibility of authorities of the country in this time of transition" before exchanging gifts.
The pope, the first to visit Myanmar, received the military chief at the archbishop's residence in Yangon, where he will be staying until he leaves to visit Bangladesh on Thursday.
Thousands of Myanmar's nearly 700,000 Catholics traveled to greet the Pope as he landed in Yangon Monday, and more than 150,000 have registered to attend a Mass he will say on Wednesday, according to Catholic Myanmar Church spokesman Mariano Soe Naing.
Myanmar's Catholic Church has publicly urged Francis to avoid using the term "Rohingya,'' which is shunned by many locally because the ethnic group is not a recognized minority in the country.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has called the Rohingya Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country his "brothers and sisters," speaking out against violence in the troubled Rakhine state.
Burke didn't say if Francis used the term in his meeting with the general.
The pontiff's schedule does not include a visit to a refugee camp, but he is expected to meet with a small group of Rohingya in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.
In recent weeks, Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Rakhine state, according to officials from both countries.
But the U.N. refugee agency spokesperson said conditions in Rakhine state are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns.
Source: Voice of America