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Pope preaches forgiveness in first public Mass in Burma

Pope Francis urged Burma's long-suffering people to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the hurt they have endured, preaching a message of forgiveness during a Mass in the country.

Authorities estimated some 150,000 people turned out at Yangon's Kyaikkasan Ground park for the Mass, but the crowd seemed far larger.

Catholics had to apply to attend through their local churches to enter the park venue, and many dressed in matching outfits or with hats bearing the pope's image.

Before Mass, Francis looped around the park in his open-sided popemobile, waving to the crowds that continued to pour in as the service began.

Local government officials and senior members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party were on hand, as were members of Myanmar's mostly Christian Kachin minority, wearing traditional dress.

Francis has said his aim in coming to Burma - also known as Myanmar - is to minister to its Catholic community, which numbers around 660,000 people, or just over 1% of the population of about 52 million.

His trip has been overshadowed by Burma's military operations targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority in northern Rakhine state.

The crackdown, which has been described by the UN as a campaign of "textbook ethnic cleansing," has drawn international condemnation.

In his first public comments on Tuesday, Francis told Suu Kyi and other government authorities that Burma's future lay in respecting the rights of all its people - "none excluded" - but he refrained from mentioning the Rohingya by name.

The violence, looting and burning of Rohingya Muslim villages has resulted in more than 620,000 people fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh in Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades.

In his homily on Wednesday, Francis referred to the suffering that Burma's ethnic and religious minorities have endured, a reference to the decades of conflicts between the country's ethnic minorities and the military that continue today in parts of the country.

Burma recently emerged from nearly a half-century of military dictatorship, but minorities including the Kachins are still subject to discrimination and other forms of violence.

"I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible," Francis told the crowd in Italian that was translated into Burmese.

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," he said, speaking from an altar erected on a traditional Buddhist-style stage.

Later on Wednesday, Francis is to meet with Burma's Buddhist leadership and then speak to the country's Catholic bishops.

He will celebrate a Mass for young people on Thursday and then heads to Bangladesh for the second leg of his South Asian tour.

AP

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