YANGON, Myanmar -- Pope Francis urged Myanmar's long-suffering ethnic minorities to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the hurt they have endured, preaching a message of forgiveness Wednesday to a huge crowd in his first public Mass in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Local authorities estimated that about 150,000 people turned out at Yangon's Kyaikkasan Ground park for the Mass, but the crowd seemed far larger and included faithful bearing flags from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, among other places. Burmese 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.
Francis has said his aim in coming to Myanmar is to minister to its Catholic community, which numbers around 660,000 people, or just over 1 percent of the population of about 52 million.
His trip has been overshadowed, though, by Myanmar's military operations targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority in 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 Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other government authorities that the country's future lay in respecting the rights of all its people — "none excluded" — but he refrained from mentioning the Rohingya by name. The violence, including the looting and burning of Rohingya villages in Rakhine, has resulted in more than 620,000 people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh in Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades.
In his homily Wednesday, Francis referred to the suffering that Myanmar's ethnic and religious groups have endured, a reference to the decades of conflicts between Myanmar's ethnic minorities and the military that continue today in parts of the country. Myanmar recently emerged from nearly half a century of military dictatorship, but minorities including the Kachin and Karen 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. Although he said the temptation is to respond with revenge, he urged 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.
Suu Kyi's civilian government, which came to power in 2015 after decades of military rule, has been negotiating with 17 of Myanmar's 20 major ethnic groups that have staged decades of insurgencies against the central government demanding greater autonomy. The conflicts involving the Karen, Kachin, Sha and Wa — who are 40 percent of the country's population — have claimed thousands of lives.
The Catholic Church has strongly backed the Suu Kyi government's efforts to negotiate a peace, and a prayer read out in the Karen language during the Mass referred directly to the initiative.
"For the leaders of Myanmar, that they may always foster peace and reconciliation through dialogue and understanding, thus promoting an end to the conflict in the states of Kachin, Rakhine and Shan, we pray to the Lord," read the prayer.
Before Mass, Francis looped around the park in his open-sided popemobile, waving to the flag-waving crowds that continued to pour in as the service began.
Local government officials and senior members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party were on hand, as were members of Myanmar's mostly Christian Kachin minority, many of whom traveled two days by train from Kachin state to see the first pope ever to visit Myanmar.
Despite the high humidity, the scene at the park was joyous and pius, with many women covering their heads with lace veils.
"I can't express how happy I am," said Henery Thaw Zin, a 57-year-old ethnic Karen from Hinthada, a four-hour drive from Yangon. "I can't imagine, or can't expect to get a chance like this again, not just in this life, but in my next life as well."
One group of 50 Catholics, dressed in traditional Vietnamese garb and conical straw hats, came from Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam, for the Mass. "I hope one day soon the pope will visit my country," said Nguyen Thi Hahn.
Myanmar's first-ever cardinal, Charles Bo, told Francis that his visit had changed Catholics in Myanmar forever.
"A miracle has been enacted today," Bo said at the end of Mass. "Thank you. And this little flock prays for you."
Later Wednesday, in a meeting with Myanmar's senior Buddhist monks, Francis called for religious leaders to speak with one voice affirming their commitment to peace and respect for justice and dignity for all people.
"If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred," Francis told the Sangha council, a committee of high-ranking monks appointed by the government.
Citing the teachings of both Buddha and his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, Francis said: "May that wisdom continue to foster patience and understanding and heal the wounds of conflict that through the years have divided people of different cultures, ethnicities and religious convictions."
Francis wraps up his visit to Myanmar on Thursday with a Mass for young people in Yangon's cathedral before heading to Bangladesh for the second and final leg of
his weeklong South Asia tour. (AP)