The Vatican and Myanmar have agreed to establish diplomatic relations at a time when the Buddhist-majority country is accused of increasing religious and ethnic intolerance.
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.
Myanmar’s government is facing international criticism for its 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 government 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 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.
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.