He avoided using the term ‘Rohingya’ while visiting Myanmar, but the Pope surprised the world when he referred to the Muslim minority by name on his later trip to Bangladesh
During an interfaith meeting in Bangladesh on Friday, Pope Francis asked Rohingya refugees for forgiveness for all the hurt and persecution they had been forced to endure, after which he made the controversial move of voicing their official name – Rohingya – in the public ceremony.
In a final wrap up of his closely watched Asia visit – one that had been dominated by talks about the Bangladesh-Myanmar humanitarian crisis – the Pope addressed 5,000 people at a gathering on the grounds of the Roman Catholic archbishop’s residence in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka.
In a historical moment, the pontiff uttered the name he had meticulously avoided using just days before in Myanmar and asked Rohingya refugees for forgiveness for what he called the “world’s indifference” to their plight.
“Dear brothers and sisters, we are all close to you. Your tragedy is very hard, very big,” the Roman Catholic leader stated. “In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, those who hurt you, and especially of the world’s indifference, I ask for your forgiveness.”
“Let us not close our heart. Let’s not look away. The presence of God today is called Rohingya.”
The Pope’s comments were made directly after his meeting with three Rohingya families – twelve men, 2 women and 2 young girls – who had come to Dhaka from the refugee camps in southern Bangladesh.
In recent months, upwards of 600,000 people have resided in the camps after fleeing rape, torture and killings by the Myanmar military. The persecution and violence that the Muslim minority has faced has been officially labeled as “ethnic cleansing’ by the UN.
One of the two women who were in attendance at the meeting told Reuters that she planned to tell the Pope of the abuse and suffering she has endured at the hands of the military regime.
“Myanmar military captured me and some other women, tortured us. I still bleed, there is pain in the abdomen, my back hurts, I get headaches. Medicines have not helped much.”
“I will share my pain with him,” she added, Reuters reported.
Throughout the entirety of the Pope’s visit to Myanmar, his calls for peace failed to directly mention the Rohingya. Following this move, human rights groups and other prominent figures began to draw criticism of the Pope for succumbing to the diplomatic requests of local politicians, rather than taking up the cause of condemning the treatment of the persecuted Muslim minority.
It would appear that the Pope initially followed the suggestions of his advisers who believed his use of the word would be too controversial to say in Myanmar, where the Rohingya minority is referred to as illegal ‘Bengalis’. Myanmar church officials further stated that use of the word could prompt a violent backlash against the nation’s small Catholic community and damage Myanmar’s journey to democracy.
As the Pope left Asia on Saturday, he defended his silence in Myanmar, saying a public criticism would have “slammed the door in the face” of the country’s leaders and stopped his overall message of peace and unity from being received.