by Tess Daniels
In early December, Pope Francis concluded a diplomatically-tricky visit to Asia, where he visited the countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many people apprehensively watched the trip to see whether he would speak out about the controversial term “Rohingya.” The Rohingya, who are described as “the world’s most persecuted minority,” are a Muslim ethnic group who have lived for centuries in the majority-Buddhist Myanmar. Nearly all of the Rohingya in Myanmar live in the extremely poor state of Rakhine and are not allowed to leave without government permission. Several governments, including the United Sates, have declared the recent violence against the Rohingya to be an act of ethnic cleansing, an accusation which the military has denied. Due to their ongoing persecution, over 600,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee the Rakhine State towards neighboring Bangladesh, where they are denied refugee status.
While visiting Myanmar, Francis opted for diplomatic expediency and refrained from using the term, causing some complaints from human rights groups and Rohingya themselves. However, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon had asked Francis not to inflame things by using “Rohingya” in his public rhetoric, especially because the regime could react violently against the group itself or even against the small Catholic minority in Myanmar. Vatican spokespeople also declared that acknowledging the Rohingya would do more harm than good; they defended Francis’ initial silence as necessary for the sake of “building bridges” with Myanmar, which only established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in May.
In Bangladesh—the next leg of his trip—Francis demanded that the international community intervene to resolve the crisis and help Bangladesh cope with the influx of refugees fleeing the military crackdown. On the last day of his three-day visit to Bangladesh, the Pope went to Dhaka to visit a home founded by Mother Teresa for orphans, unwed mothers, and destitute elderly. Still, he didn’t use the word “Rohingya.” Until he came face-to-face with them.
Francis finally uttered the word at an emotional encounter Friday with a group of 16 Rohingya refugees who travelled from camps in Cox’s Bazar to Dhaka, a meeting Francis later called “a condition of the trip.” His voice trembling, he embraced the men, women, and children who had been forced to flee Myanmar for squalid camps in Bangladesh. Francis immediately asked them for mercy for what they had endured: "In the name of all those who persecute you, who have persecuted you, and those who have hurt you, above all in the indifference of the world, I ask you for forgiveness," he said. He repeated, "Forgiveness."
On the plane back from Bangladesh, Francis told reporters he was "very, very satisfied" that his message had been received in his private meetings with Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar's powerful military chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. "It's true I didn't have the pleasure of slamming the door in their face publicly with a denunciation," Francis said. "But I had the satisfaction of dialogue, and letting the other side dialogue, and in this way the message arrived." When asked specifically about his encounter with the Rohingya refugees, Francis replied he hadn’t planned the encounter and hadn’t expected the profound emotions he would feel. "What did I feel?" he asked. "In that moment I cried. I tried not to show it."
He added: "They wept too."