General Min Aung Hlaing heads the military, which remains highly influential in the country

Accepting suggestions by Burma’s cardinal, Pope Francis has added two private meetings to the schedule for his visit to the country: one with religious leaders and the other with the commander of the military, who wields great political power in the country.

Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, said Pope Francis will meet with representatives of various religions present in Burma on November 28, and with General Min Aung Hlaing the following day. Burke also said the public Mass in Yangon on November 29 will begin an hour earlier than originally scheduled because of the heat.

About 90 per cent of Burma’s population follows Theravada Buddhism, and Pope Francis already had a meeting scheduled with the Sangha supreme council, which oversees the Buddhist monks throughout the country. But Burma also is home to Muslims, Hindus and followers of other Buddhist traditions, as well as Baptists, who far outnumber Catholics in the country.

The military in Burma, and General Min Aung Hlaing in particular, have been harshly criticized by the international community for their campaign against the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority. The military claims the crackdown is a response to violence, but the United Nations has said the crackdown is hugely disproportionate and amounts to ethnic cleansing.

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, who suggested the Pope meet with the general, has publicly said he urged Pope Francis not to use the word “Rohingya” for fear of inciting Buddhist nationalists and the military. Burke told reporters they would have to listen to the pope’s speeches to see if he accepted that suggestion as well.

Representatives of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh will meet Pope Francis on December 1 in Dhaka during an interreligious and ecumenical meeting for peace, Burke said.