A vocal champion of the poor and refugees, Pope Francis will be forced to navigate a diplomatic and religious minefield ahead of his visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh
In what will be his first papal visit to Myanmar, Pope Francis is arriving in the capital city of Yangon on Monday where all eyes will be watching to see how the liberal leaning leader of the Catholic church decides to address the ongoing Rohingya crisis.
Pope Francis comes to the region on the heels of an international backlash against Myanmar and the military’s treatment of the Muslim minority group, which has been characterised by the UN as being textbook ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Ahead of the visit, the Pope has been warned about his use of the word ‘Rohingya’ with many advisors insisting that this will be the most difficult trip for him to navigate, particularly since his papacy has been characterised as him being a champion of the poor and refugees.
The Financial Times reported that Myanmar’s only cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, and Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general who headed up a commission that investigated the Rakhine crisis, have both impressed upon the Pope to avoid using the term.
Part of the semantic problem that will prove to be divisive for the Pope is that the group which he has been warned not to call by name, and who he has previously called his “brothers and sisters”, are referred to as ‘Bengalis’ in Myanmar by both the army and the government; a label that speaks to the contentious issue of the government not granting the Muslim minority full citizenship.
Officials are also warning that his use of the name ‘Rohingya’ could spark a backlash amongst the country’s Christian minority – in a Buddhist majority country where less than 1% identifies as Roman Catholic – or even the Muslim minority.
During the trip, which was arranged months prior to the August 25 outbreak of violence that has led to the 620,000 refugees being pushed onto the border of Bangladesh, the Pope will meet with Myanmar’s defacto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the president, Htin Kyaw.
After spending three days in the Yangon, Pope Francis will begin a two-day visit to Bangladesh where he won’t visit any refugee camps, but will instead meet with a small group of Rohingya in the capital city of Dhaka.
The Vatican is billeting the Pope’s mission of visiting the two fraught regions as one that is intended to send a message of “reconciliation, forgiveness and peace”.
But Pope Francis has become popular for breaking the script on these papal visits.
During a visit to Greece last year, the Pope took 12 Syrian refugees who faced deportation from Lesbos home with him to Rome. And in a move that upset both Christians and Israelis during a visit to Israel and Palestine in 2014, the Pope forced his motorcade to stop in front of the security wall separating the two regions so that he could touch the wall and pray.
His visit, no matter what diplomatic approach he decides to take, will prove to be an important moment for his papacy, as both Myanmar and Bangladesh have recently agreed to the safe return of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the country to escape violence.