MUMBAI, India – Church authorities in Bangladesh are doing what they can to help the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing neighboring Myanmar.
Nearly 400,000 people have fled what the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has termed “ethnic cleansing.”
This is in addition to the nearly 500,000 Rohingya who fled earlier anti-Muslim riots in the Buddhist-majority country, and are also living in camps in Bangladesh.
The UN’s children agency, UNICEF, estimates the majority are minors, and they are hungry, malnourished, and finding shelter in makeshift settlements or with host communities.
Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, the Archbishop of the Dhaka, told Crux he planned on visiting the camps personally to assess the situation.
“It is very good that Bangladesh has opened the doors for the Rohingya, who have suffered all kinds of atrocities,” the cardinal said.
D’Rozario said the church in the country is active in the humanitarian relief work being provided, despite the fact Catholics make up only about 0.2 percent of the population.
“Bangladesh Caritas is involved in Relief work in the camps providing relief initially to fourteen thousand families,” he told Crux, adding that Caritas Internationalis is the only international NGO approved by the government to work in the area.
The Rohingya live mostly in Rakhine State, and claim to be native to the area. There was also immigration from the neighboring areas of India, and what is now Bangladesh, during the precolonial and colonial era, but most families have been in the area for generations.
Rohingya have faced persecution for decades, and were denied citizenship under a nationality law passed by the government’s military regime in 1982, in which the Rohingya are officially considered “Bengali interlopers.”
Since then, they have suffered occasional pogroms, including in 2012, when thousands were burnt out of their homes.
Since the country held its first free national elections in decades in 2015 – won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy – the situation has not gotten better.
A major crackdown on the community – instigated by extremist Buddhist monks – began in 2016.
The current crisis became even worse on August 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked a police outpost.
The military then began what it called “clearance operations,” and Rohingya refugees claim this involved indiscriminate murder, arson, and forced removals. In addition, Buddhist mobs have been accused of attacking Rohingya across Rakhine state.
James Romen Boiragi is the Bishop of Khulna, Bangladesh’s third largest city. He said the situation with the Rohingya refugees is “very bad.”
“We condemn this kind of military operation,” the bishop told Crux. “This is an act against humanity and a violation of human rights. So many people are living inhuman lives. Lot of children are struggling to survive.”
Boiragi said if the Myanmar military would stop its campaign, then the refugees would return home to live in peace.
“We pray for all these people,” he said.
Pakistani Bishop Joseph Arshad once served in the Vatican embassy to Bangladesh, and now heads the Pakistan Bishops’ National Commission for Justice & Peace.
He told Crux the current crisis transcends ethnicity, religion, and nationality.
“We cannot remain silent. It’s a humanitarian suffering and the Catholic Church in Pakistan stands strong with Rohingya people,” Arshad said.
Pakistan’s government has expressed “deep anguish” over the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and lodged an official complaint with the country’s ambassador.
Although separated from Myanmar by India, Pakistan has a significant Rohingya population from when Bangladesh was still “East Pakistan” before gaining independence in 1971; although much like their brethren in Myanmar, they are denied citizenship.
Despite this fact, several protests in support of Myanmar’s besieged Rohingya have taken place across the country.
The director of Peace Center Lahore, Dominican Father James Channan said the situation is “shocking,” and he appealed for other Muslim countries to support the Rohingya and “raise their voice against this grave violation of human rights and religiously motivated violence.”
Channan added, “Every person has a right to life and freedom of religion.”
Meanwhile, India is facing growing criticism for its hardline stance towards Rohingya refugees. After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar last week, his government reiterated plans to deport the 40,000 Rohingya refugees in the country.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the head of the UN refugee agency, said he “deplored” the decision, “at a time of such violence against them in their country.”
Jesuit Father Xavier John Bosco – Director of the Jesuit-run Center for Information, Training, Research and Action near Hyderabad – told Crux India needs to rethink its stand.
“On compassionate and humanitarian grounds, we must welcome the Rohingya and grant shelter to them,” he said.
“It is heartbreaking to hear of the violence and murder, rape and loot of millions of Rohingya,” Bosco said. “Many people are shocked at this human tragedy; but we do not know what to do. Inactivity and indifference are greater tragedies.”
The Jesuit called on the United Nations and the world powers to intervene in the crisis. “Will the nations and the leaders of the nations come forward, risking their own comfort to the rescue of the battered and bleeding Rohingya?”
Father Frederick D’Souza, the Executive Director of Caritas India, told Crux the humanity of those suffering cannot be forgotten.
“It is very important to respect the human rights of the people as it aims at upholding their dignity,” D’Souza said. “The UN and the respective governments should sort out the issues and poor and the vulnerable people should not be put at the risk of survival.”
Bosco questioned the role of Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate who now leads the civilian government, but is facing growing criticism over her role in the Rohingya crisis.
Because of the crisis, Suu Kyi has skipped an appointment to address the United Nations this week, a move some critics say is aimed at avoiding hard questions about the actions of the army. In recent statements, she has accused people of exaggerating the situation in Rakhine state, and has even avoided using the word ‘Rohingya’ to describe the community.
Bosco told Crux he believes Suu Kyi “most probably feels helpless to do anything against the wish of the majority Buddhists, as once Mahatma Gandhi watched helplessly the massacre of millions during the Hindu-Muslims riots during partition.”
But the head of the Catholic Church in Myanmar itself, Archbishop of Yangon Cardinal Charles Bo, said he expects more from Suu Kyi.
“The world looks at Aung San Suu Kyi with the same lens with which it looked at her during her struggle for democracy,” Bo told Time magazine. “Now she is part of the government, she is a political leader. Surely she should have spoken out.”
However, he warned against “stigmatizing” the democracy activist, saying that if the army retakes power, it would cause “the end of any dream of democracy.”
Bo is due to host Pope Francis from November 27-30 when the pontiff visits Myanmar, before heading to Bangladesh, where he will stay until December 2.
There are around 450,000 Catholics in Myanmar, less than 1 percent of the total 53 million.
Francis has been an advocate for the Rohingya, making his latest appeal for them during his Angelus on August 27, when he urged for them to be given “full rights.”
Francis has consistently spoken about the Rohingya during interviews, his daily morning Masses, Angelus addresses and his Wednesday general audiences.
On Feb. 8, the pontiff asked the pilgrims gathered for his general audience to pray with him “for our brother and sister Rohingya. They were driven out of Myanmar, they go from one place to another and no one wants them.”
“They are good people, peaceful people; they aren’t Christians, but they are good. They are our brothers and sisters. And they have suffered for years,” he said, “tortured and killed” simply for carrying forward their traditions and Muslim faith.
In his interview with Time, Bo said he hopes the pope’s words during his visit will “bring healing, not hatred.”
The cardinal told the news magazine it’s important to try to diffuse the tension and anger in the region, and use language that “will not rile” either side.
“In this context, it is advisable at this time not to qualify the situation as genocide or ethnic cleansing against the Muslim community,” Bo said.
The cardinal said the Rohingya crisis should not draw attention away from the many other ethnic groups suffering discrimination in Myanmar, such as the Karen, Kachin, and Shan.
“All these conflicts threw out thousands as [internally displaced persons] and refugees,” Bo said.