The Asian nation’s first cardinal on persecuted minorities, democracy’s rebirth and his small but growing flock

Until recently, Burma seemed to be emerging from decades of international isolation. The opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest and became the country’s state counsellor (equivalent to prime minister). She then travelled to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Burma – which has 750,000 faithful (out of a population of 52 million) – gained its first cardinal, Charles Bo. Last November, Francis became the first pope to visit the South East Asian nation.

But all was not well in Burma (officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar). Last August, hundreds of thousands of members of the Rohingya ethnic minority fled over the border into Bangladesh. A UN report concluded that senior Burmese military officials should be investigated for genocide in Rakhine state, which has a sizeable population of Rohingya Muslims, and for crimes against humanity elsewhere.

But when I meet Cardinal Bo in the capital, Rangoon, he seems cautiously optimistic. He notes that, thanks to international pressure, Burma and Bangladesh are working together to ensure that Rohingya refugees can return home.

“The events of last year are definitely a very sad humanitarian crisis,” he says. “We are glad that all stakeholders seek peaceful solutions.”

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