Yangon: Pope Francis on Tuesday delivered a keynote speech in Myanmar after meeting the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, demanding "respect for each ethnic group" but without referring to the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority by name.
Standing alongside Suu Kyi, the Pope spoke mostly in general terms. His highly-anticipated remarks may draw condemnation from human rights activists who blame the Myanmar Army for driving out hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas from the country.
Although the Pope made no direct reference to Rohingyas, his speech was a strong defense of ethnic rights, the BBC reported.
He said: "The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good."
The Pope said Myanmar's greatest treasure was its people and that they had "suffered greatly and continue to suffer, from civil conflict and hostilities that have lasted all too long and created deep divisions.
"As the nation now works to restore peace, the healing of those wounds must be a paramount political and spiritual priority."
He added: "Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building."
In her speech, Suu Kyi also made no direct reference to the Rohingya Muslims. However, she accepted the situation in Rakhine state had "most strongly captured the attention of the world".
She said that "social, economic and political" issues had "eroded trust and understanding, harmony and co-operation between different communities in Rakhine".
Suu Kyi has been criticized for her lack of action over the issue. She was stripped of the Freedom of the City of Oxford on Monday, with British councillors saying they no longer wished to honor those who turned a "blind eye to violence".
Myanmar denied UN accusations that the treatment of the Muslim community amounted to "ethnic cleansing". It said the crackdown in Rakhine state, which began in late August, was to root out violent insurgents.
The Pope is on the second day of a four-day visit to the country. In an earlier 40-minute meeting in Yangon with leaders of the Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Christian faiths, he also made no direct reference to the Rohingyas, according to Vatican officials.
He also met Buddhist leader Sitagu Sayadaw separately to discuss peaceful coexistence among communities in the country. On Wednesday, the Pope will celebrate a huge Mass in Yangon, Efe news reported.
After Myanmar, he will move on to Bangladesh to meet a small group of Rohingya refugees in a symbolic gesture.
The pontiff will become the first Catholic leader to visit Dhaka since 1986.