Pope Francis will travel to Myanmar and Bangladesh this year for a landmark visit that is likely to focus international attention on the plight of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will be in Myanmar from 27 to 30 November and neighbouring Bangladesh from 30 November to 2 December, the Vatican said on Monday.
The visit to Myanmar will be the first by any pope to the country formerly known as Burma. Pope John Paul II visited Bangladesh in 1986.
Francis has regularly spoken out in defence of the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
On Sunday he bemoaned the latest “sad reports of the persecution of a religious minority, our Rohingya brothers” adding: “I would like to express my closeness to them and all of us ask the Lord to save them and to prompt men and women of good faith to help them and ensure their full rights.”
His comments came after clashes between Myanmar security forces and suspected Rohingya militants on Friday and Saturday left many people dead.
The death toll from the violence that erupted on Friday with coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents climbed to 98 on Sunday, including 80 insurgents and 12 members of the security forces, the government said. The clashes have prompted the government to evacuate staff and thousands of non-Muslim villagers from the area.
The fighting caused hundreds of civilians to flee remote villages in Rakhine state in northern Myanmar with most of them aiming to cross the border into Bangladesh.
The attacks marked a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered in the region since last October, when a similar but much smaller Rohingya attack prompted a brutal military operation beset by allegations of human rights abuses.
The treatment of approximately 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya in mainly Buddhist Myanmar has emerged as the biggest challenge for national leader Aung San Suu Kyi. On Friday, she condemned the raids in which insurgents wielding guns, sticks and homemade bombs assaulted 30 police stations and an army base.
The Nobel peace prize laureate has been accused by some western critics of not speaking out for the long-persecuted Muslim minority, and of defending the army’s counter-offensive after the October attacks.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, said on Saturday that 4,000 “ethnic villagers” who had fled their homes had been evacuated, referring to non-Muslim residents of the area. The ministry is arranging facilities for non-Muslims in places including Buddhist monasteries, government offices and local police stations in major cities.
Bangladesh’s foreign ministry said it was concerned that thousands of “unarmed Myanmar nationals” had assembled near the border to enter the country.
Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh since the early 1990s and there are about 400,000 in the country, where they are a source of tension between the two nations who both regard them as the other country’s citizens.
The Vatican said Francis would visit Yangon and capital, Naypyidaw, while in Myanmar and Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on the second leg of his trip. The full programme has yet to be finalised.