Vatican and Myanmar establish diplomatic relations

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Vatican and Myanmar establish diplomatic relations

Vatican City (AFP) - The Vatican and Myanmar established full diplomatic relations on Thursday in the latest step in the former pariah Asian state's rehabilitation by the international community.

The Vatican said it would appoint a papal nuncio to Yangon and that the country would open an embassy at the Vatican, formally wrapping up an accord approved by Myanmar in March.

The move came as Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi met Pope Francis on the latest leg of a European tour overshadowed by her country's treatment of the Rohingya, a persecuted minority Muslim group in the 90-percent Buddhist country.

Pope Francis has spoken out in the past on behalf of the Rohingya while Nobel peace prize winner Suu Kyi has come under fire for not condemning repression of them by her country's security forces.

Kuu Syi and a small group of officials spent around 20 minutes in Thursday's audience with the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics.

Francis presented the former dissident with a bronze medallion with an image of a blooming desert.

Suu Kyi had talks on Wednesday with Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano and with EU and Belgian officials in Brussels on Tuesday. She is also due to visit Britain.

In Brussels she reiterated her opposition to a decision by the UN human rights body to send a fact-finding mission to Myanmar to investigate allegations of murder, rape and torture against the Rohingya in Rakhine state.

Alfano said in a statement he had discussed the process of national reconciliation in the country formerly known as Burma, without elaborating.

Francis denounced the treatment of the Rohingya in February, describing them as "brothers and sisters" who were were being tortured and killed for their faith.

- Education issue -

He described the Rohingya as "good and peaceful people who have suffered for years," and urged Catholics to pray for them.

Estimates of the number of Roman Catholics in Myanmar vary between 500,000 and 800,000.

According to the CIA, Christians of all sorts make up around 6 percent of the population of 57 million with groups of Baptists and other Protestants concentrated among ethnic minorities.

Christians say they are subject to some of the same persecution and discrimination faced by the Rohingya.

The Holy See's request for diplomatic relations dates back to 1990 and, until now, its interests have been represented by an "apostolic delegate" - a rank below a Nuncio or ambassador - with the role filled by the ambassador to neighbouring Thailand.

A key issue for the Church in Myanmar is its ability to support Catholic education. All Church schools were nationalised in 1965 following the 1962 military coup in the former British colony.

The Church has recently been able to invest in schools again but supported establishments have to be registered in the names of private individuals rather than being officially run by the Church.

"We hope to obtain equality of treatment with respect to other religions in this respect," the archbishop of Yangon, Charles Bo, said in a March interview with French website Eglises d'Asie (Churches of Asia).

The establishment of ties leaves only strongly Muslim Brunei and the officially communist regimes of China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam as the only Asian states not to have full diplomatic relations with the Vatican.