YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Pope Francis urged Myanmar's religious leaders and ordinary faithful on Wednesday to help the country heal its old wounds, preaching a message of forgiveness and tolerance as the country emerges from military dictatorship and seeks to make peace with its many ethnic minorities after decades of conflict.
At an open-air Mass, an audience with Myanmar's senior Buddhist monks and during an encounter with his own Catholic bishops, Francis sought to encourage greater dialogue and understanding at a delicate time of transition in the predominantly Buddhist South Asian nation.
"I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible," Francis told a huge open-air Mass in Yangon's Kyaikkasan Ground park. While the temptation is to respond with revenge, Francis urged instead a response of "forgiveness and compassion."
"The way of revenge is not the way of Jesus," Francis told the crowd, speaking from an altar erected on a traditional Buddhist-style stage.
Local authorities estimated that about 150,000 people turned out for the Mass, but the crowd seemed far larger and included faithful bearing flags from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, among other places.
Francis has said his aim in coming to Myanmar is to minister to its Catholic community, which numbers around 660,000 people, or just over 1 percent of the population of about 52 million. His message, though, has echoed far beyond the Christian community, with his visit making front-page news and being replayed constantly on Myanmar television news.
The trip has been overshadowed by Myanmar's military operations targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state. The crackdown, which has been described by the U.N. as a campaign of "textbook ethnic cleansing," has drawn international condemnation.
Francis has refrained from referring directly to the conflict, though he called for Myanmar to respect the rights of all people who call the country home — "none excluded" — an indirect reference to the Rohingya's plight. The violence, including the looting and burning of Rohingya villages in Rakhine, has resulted in more than 620,000 people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh in Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades.
In his homily Wednesday, Francis acknowledged the suffering that Myanmar's ethnic and religious groups have endured, a reference to the decades of conflicts between Myanmar's ethnic minorities who seek greater autonomy and the military. The conflicts involving the Karen, Kachin, Sha and Wa — who are 40 percent of the country's population — have claimed thousands of lives and continue today in parts of the country.
Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government, which came to power in 2015 after decades of military rule, has been negotiating with 17 of the 20 major ethnic groups, a process Francis and the Myanmar Catholic Church have sought to encourage.
A prayer read out in the Karen language during the Mass referred directly to the initiative. "For the leaders of Myanmar, that they may always foster peace and reconciliation through dialogue and understanding, thus promoting an end to the conflict in the states of Kachin, Rakhine and Shan, we pray to the Lord," read the prayer.
Members of Myanmar's mostly Christian Kachin minority were on hand for the Mass, many of whom traveled two days by train from Kachin state to see the first pope ever to visit Myanmar.
Despite the high humidity, the scene at the park was joyous and pious, with many women covering their heads with lace veils.
"I can't express how happy I am," said Henery Thaw Zin, a 57-year-old ethnic Karen from Hinthada, a four-hour drive from Yangon. "I can't imagine, or can't expect to get a chance like this again, not just in this life, but in my next life as well."
Later Wednesday, in a meeting with Myanmar's senior Buddhist monks, Francis called for religious leaders to speak with one voice affirming their commitment to peace and respect for justice and dignity for all people.
"If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred," Francis told the Sangha council, a committee of high-ranking monks appointed by the government.
Citing the teachings of both Buddha and his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, Francis said: "May that wisdom continue to foster patience and understanding and heal the wounds of conflict that through the years have divided people of different cultures, ethnicities and religious convictions."
The head of the council, Bhamo Sayadaw, lamented how some people use religion for "extremism and terrorism," saying such interpretations were wrong and inspired by "greed and ego" since religion is meant to inspire the common good.
The elderly monk didn't refer to any particular religion, but the government has identified a group of Rohingya Muslim militants as a terrorist group, while the Sahgha council has denounced Myanmar's growing Buddhist nationalist group, which has used hate speech to inspire violence against Muslims.
And in his final event of the day, Francis met with his bishops in Yangon's Catholic cathedral, and urged them to help their tiny flock heal from "deeply-rooted divisions" that have scarred the country, and help foster unity.
Francis wraps up his visit to Myanmar on Thursday with a Mass for young people in Yangon's cathedral before heading to Bangladesh for the second and final leg of his weeklong South Asia tour.
Htusan reported from Bangkok. Associated Press producers Hau Dinh and Min Kyi Thein contributed to this report.