VATICAN CITY — The Vatican and the Asian nation of Myanmar have agreed to establish diplomatic relations at a time when the Buddhist-majority country is transitioning from decades of military rule but facing criticism for religious and ethnic discrimination.
The announcement came Thursday, the same day that Pope Francis met with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s top civilian leader.
Francis received Suu Kyi in the “throne room” of the Apostolic Palace — an honor usually reserved for heads of state. They chatted for more than 20 minutes and Francis gave her copies of his major documents as well as a copy of his 2017 message for the church’s World Day of Peace, “Non-Violence, a style of Politics for Peace.”
Myanmar is facing international criticism for military activities in the western state of Rakhine, where troops are accused of carrying out widespread abuses against the Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority in what the military says is a counter-insurgency operation.
Discrimination against the Rohingya is widespread and the government refuses to recognize most as citizens, treating even long-term residents as illegal immigrants.
Francis has appealed for prayers for the Rohingya, denouncing in February how they had been “tortured and killed, simply because they are continuing their traditions, their Muslim faith.”
The Vatican said the decision to establish diplomatic relations would “promote bonds of mutual friendship.”
About 1 percent of Myanmar’s 51 million people are Catholics. The church has been active in Myanmar — also known as Burma — for five centuries.
Myanmar’s presidential spokesman, Zaw Htay, said the country wanted to be “part of the international family” and that establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican was key to that, given its role as a reference point for all Christians.