Pope Francis began a visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh on Monday, sparking speculation that he might add the weight of the Vatican to the region's crisis over the alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
Francis, the first pontiff to ever visit the Southeast Asian country, arrived in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, where he was greeted by thousands of the country's Catholics who lined the motorcade route.
The pope is expected to have separate meetings with the country's de facto ruler, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as its powerful military chief and Buddhist monks, The Associated Press says.
Francis is scheduled to visit Muslim-majority Bangladesh beginning on Thursday.
Although the Rohingya have a long history of poor treatment at the hands of authorities in Myanmar, the latest refugee crisis was sparked in August, when the country's army launched a crackdown on the minority people in Rakhine state following attacks on military outposts by Rohingya militants.
Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her long campaign for democracy – much of it spent under house arrest. But Suu Kyi, although she has no direct authority over the country's military, has come under intense international pressure for not denouncing the army's crackdown. That campaign against the Rohingya has forced some 600,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh amid what the U.S. and United Nations have described as "ethnic cleansing."
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, traveling with the pope, says Francis has been advised by local church leaders not to talk about the Rohingya, whom the country's Buddhist majority considers illegal migrants.
"They say it's too hot in Myanmar. I'm sorry, but let's hope it will at least be fruitful," Francis told reporters on the flight from Rome.
And, as Sylvia has noted previously, "Pope Francis often speaks forcefully on behalf of migrants across the world who are exploited or expelled. In February, he singled out those being driven from Myanmar."
Since the crackdown began, Rohingya have poured across the border carrying stories of beatings, shootings and rape. Bangladesh, which struggles often to provide for its own population, has reluctantly hosted the refugees in squalid camps near the border.
Last week, Myanmar and Bangladesh announced they had struck a tentative deal for the repatriation of the refugees. But the details of the agreement are unclear, as is the welcome the Rohingya are likely to receive in a country that denies their citizenship.
The U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to hold a special meeting in Geneva next week to discuss the Rohingya crisis, Reuters reports, quoting Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.