Pope Francis avoided referring to the Rohingya by name as he delivered a speech in Myanmar, which has faced claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the minority Muslim group.
But the Pontiff urged respect for “each ethnicity and its identity” and called on Myanmar’s government to ensure “justice and respect for human rights”.
In recent months, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh amid a police crackdown, which the UN has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Speaking after a meeting with Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Pope said civil conflict and hostilities in the country “have lasted all too long and created deep divisions”.
“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building,” he added.
Many in Myanmar reject the term “Rohingya” and instead refer to the group as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Prior to the papal visit, Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Maung Bo urged Francis not to use the word as “the military and government and the public would not like him to express it”.
Following talks with the Pope, Ms Suu Kyi referred to the Rohingya crisis as “the situation in the Rakhine state” which had “captured the attention of the world”.
She said she aimed to “bring out the beauty of diversity and to make it our strength by protecting rights, fostering tolerance and showing security for all”.
The leader added: “As we address longstanding issues, social, economic and political, that have eroded trust and understanding, harmony and cooperation, between different communities in Rakhine, the support of our people and of good friends who only wish to see us succeed in our endeavours has been invaluable.”
The Pope will deliver an open-air mass to more than 150,000 Catholics in Yangon on Wednesday, before travelling to Bangladesh, where he is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees.
Earlier this month, Sky News footage showing emaciated women and newborn babies who had been dumped on beaches and left to die prompted discussion over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya.
Leading charities later warned of exploitation, trafficking and prostitution taking place against vulnerable Rohingya women and children in Bangladeshi camps.
But despite this, Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing has denied allegations of widespread brutality by his forces.
The general met the Pope on Monday and told him there was “no discrimination” in Myanmar, adding that the military had maintained “the peace and stability of the country”.