Yangon. Pope Francis spoke to interfaith leaders at the archbishop’s residence and met separately with a prominent but controversial Buddhist leader. His meeting with Buddhist monk Sitagu Sayadaw was “always in an effort to encourage peace and fraternal coexistence as the only way ahead,” according to spokesman Greg Burke.
The pope stressed a message of “unity in diversity” in his 40-minute meeting with Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and told them they should work together to rebuild the country and that if they argue, they should argue like brothers, who reconcile afterward, Burke said.
Sitagu also met with Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, but has been criticized for using ethnic slurs against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, although he received an award presented by Suu Kyi earlier this year. Bhante Sitagu Sayadaw is known for his charismatic leadership and practices of socially-engaged Buddhism. His organization has funded many social projects in Burma, including water pumps, construction of hospitals, including the Sitagu Ayudana Hospital in Sagaing in 1985, and the Sitagu Buddhist Academy in 1998.
Francis’ speech to Suu Kyi, other Myanmar authorities and the diplomatic corps in Naypyitaw is the most anticipated of his visit, given the outcry over the crackdown, which the U.S. and U.N. have described as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” to drive out the Rohingya from northern Rakhine state.