VATICAN CITY (AP) — 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.
"Being able to start a diplomatic relationship with Vatican is just what our country loves because we have the tradition of living together with (multiple) religions harmoniously," Htay said.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Myanmar, the Rev. Soe Naing, said the new relationship would do more than merely facilitate direct contacts between the Holy See and Yangon.
"This diplomatic relationship is good and will benefit not only the Catholic community but also other religious communities living in Myanmar," he said. "Having another friend for our country will give us help and support."
Suu Kyi's party took power last year as the country transitioned from military to civilian rule.
However, the slower-than-expected pace of democratic reforms and continuing strife with ethnic minorities have raised doubts about what sort of support Suu Kyi should be given internationally, even as investment and trade have boomed at home.
Suu Kyi's supporters say she is hamstrung by a constitution that gives the military enough parliamentary seats to block many policy initiatives, while the army remains answerable in practice only to itself.
Francis in 2015 named Myanmar's first cardinal, tapping the archbishop of Yangon, Charles Maung Bo.
The Holy See, a tiny, walled city state, has diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries. One of the few countries not on the list is China.
Htusan contributed from Yangon, Myanmar.