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Pope Francis and Bhaddanta Kumarabhivasma, chairman of the state Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, talk during a meeting with the Buddhist committee in Yangon, Myanmar November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

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By Philip Pullella and Yimou Lee

YANGON (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Wednesday urged Myanmar's top Buddhist monks to reconcile people of different ethnicities and religions as their country emerges from nearly five decades of military rule still riven by ethnic conflicts and communal strife.

That echoed a call for peace he made at a Mass earlier on the third day of a visit fraught with diplomatic risk over a military crackdown that has triggered the flight of about 625,000 Muslim Rohingya from the predominantly Buddhist country.

In a speech on Tuesday, he avoided the highly charged term 'Rohingya', following advice of Vatican insiders who feared it could set off a diplomatic incident and turn Myanmar's military and government against minority Christians.

However, his call for justice, human rights and respect for all were widely seen as applicable to the Rohingya, who are not recognised as citizens or as members of a distinct ethnic group.

Visiting the Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist monks in Yangon, the pope and his entourage of cardinals and bishops were ushered to an ornate chandeliered and carpeted room of gold and wood carvings with a white statue of Buddha at one end, taking off their shoes at the entrance.

In his address there, Francis called for "a common witness by religious leaders" and lamented that the "wounds of conflict, poverty and oppression persist" in many places.

The meeting, he said, was an opportunity for Buddhists and the tiny Catholic community "to affirm a commitment to peace, respect for human dignity and justice for every man and woman".

"If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred," he said.

Again, he made no reference to the exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine state to the southern tip of Bangladesh, which began at the end of August when the military responded to Rohingya militant attacks on an army base and police security posts.

Scores of Rohingya villages were burnt to the ground, and refugees arriving in Bangladesh told of killings and rapes. Washington said last week that the military's campaign included "horrendous atrocities" aimed at "ethnic cleansing".

Myanmar's military has denied accusations of murder, rape and forced displacement, and the government has pinned blame for the crisis on the Rohingya militants who it has condemned as terrorists.

Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, leader of the government-appointed Buddhist council, told Francis that all religions had the goals of peace and love, and terrorism arose from a lack of belief.

"It is so sad to see terrorism and extremism happening in the name of religion in the world nowadays," he said.

'WOUNDS OF VIOLENCE'

Only about 700,000 of Myanmar's 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands travelled from far and wide to see Francis, and many attended Wednesday's open-air Mass on the grounds of what was a racecourse in the Rangoon of British colonial times.

Among the tens of thousands were priests, nuns, diplomats, leaders of Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling National League for Democracy, and members of ethnic groups in traditional garb who sang and waved Myanmar and Vatican flags as they waited for the pope.

Bells chimed as Francis arrived. Standing in the back of a white truck, he smiled and waved as he headed to a pagoda-style canopy to celebrate Mass.

In his homily, he called for reconciliation and peace.

"I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible," he said, urging them to shun temptation to seek healing from anger and revenge.

MYRIAD ETHNIC CONFLICTS

Prayers were then read by members of the congregation in the Shan, Chin, Karen, Kachin and Kayan languages.

The prayer in Karen read: "For the leaders of Myanmar, that they may always foster peace and reconciliation through dialogue and understanding, thus promoting an end to conflict in the states of Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan, we pray to the lord."

When she came to power in 2016, Nobel peace laureate and longtime champion of democracy Suu Kyi said her top priority was ending multiple ethnic conflicts that have kept Myanmar in a state of near-perpetual civil war since independence in 1948.

That goal remains elusive and, although Suu Kyi remains popular at home, she has faced a barrage of international criticism recently for expressing doubts about reports of rights abuses against Rohingya and failing to condemn the military.

Although Suu Kyi formed Myanmar’s first civilian government in half a century, her defenders say she is hamstrung by a constitution written by the military that left the army in control of security and much of the apparatus of the state.

Vatican sources say some in the Holy See believe the pope's trip to Myanmar was decided too hastily after full diplomatic ties were established in May during a visit by Suu Kyi.

Francis leaves on Thursday for Bangladesh, where he will meet a group of Rohingya refugees in the capital, Dhaka.

(Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski and Thu Thu Aung; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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