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Pope Francis talks with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during a private audience at the Vatican May 4, 2017. Osservatore Romano/Handout via REUTERS


By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican and Myanmar established full diplomatic relations on Thursday, minutes after Pope Francis met with the country's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The surprise move means that the Vatican will have much more diplomatic influence in Myanmar, which is facing international scrutiny over atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

There are about 700,000 Catholics in Myanmar according to the country's cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, out of a total population of some 51.4 million, the majority of whom are Buddhist.

The Vatican had previously been represented in Myanmar by an apostolic delegate to the local church who was based in Thailand. The move means the Vatican and Myanmar will each appoint a full-fledged ambassador.

The announcement came shortly after Pope Francis met Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar's civilian government and also its foreign minister.

Suu Kyi assumed power in 2016 following a landslide election win after Myanmar's former military leaders initiated a political transition.

The Nobel Peace laureate talked privately with the pope for about half an hour in his study in the Apostolic Palace.

In February, Francis issued a stinging criticism of the treatment of the Rohingya, saying they had been tortured and killed simply because they wanted to live their culture and Muslim faith.

On Thursday, Francis gave Suu Kyi a copy of his 2017 message for the Church's World day of Peace, whose title is "Non-violence: a style of politics for peace".

His remarks in February came shortly after a U.N. report that said security forces in the north of the country had carried out mass killings, gang rapes and had burned villages.

On Tuesday, the European Union clashed with Suu Kyi by publicly supporting an international mission to look into alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya.

The EU's top diplomat Federica Mogherini, speaking at a news conference with Suu Kyi, said an agreed resolution of the U.N. Human Rights Council would help clear up uncertainty about allegations of killings, torture and rape against Rohingyas.

On the basis of that resolution, the top United Nations human rights body will send an international fact-finding mission to Myanmar despite Suu Kyi's reservations.

She said Myanmar was "disassociating" itself from the resolution.

(Editing by Toby Davis)

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