DHAKA, Bangladesh— Pope Francis arrived in Bangladesh on Thursday from neighboring Myanmar, and for the first time in four days he publicly acknowledged the elephant in the room in these two nations — the crisis of the Rohingya Muslims, forced to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh and other neighboring nations.
Yet once again, Francis avoided explicitly using the word “Rohingya.”
“In recent months, the spirit of generosity and solidarity which is a distinguishing mark of Bangladeshi society has been seen most vividly in its humanitarian outreach to a massive influx of refugees from Rakhine State, providing them with temporary shelter and the basic necessities of life,” Francis said.
Myanmar doesn’t acknowledge the Rohingya as legitimate residents of the country, officially calling them “Bengali interlopers,” while over the years Bangladesh has opened the doors to over a million of them, 600,000 in the past three months.
Yet in his speech welcoming the pontiff, President Abdul Harmid used the term, saying that Bangladesh has given shelter to “Rohingyas who were forcefully displaced from their ancestral home in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.”
Many Rohingya were killed, and among the women, thousands were raped. Their homes were burnt down, and as Harmid said, they had to “take shelter in Bangladesh to escape the ruthless atrocities perpetrated by Myanmar army.”
The politician also said that after the people of Bangladesh accepted the “inconvenience” of welcoming them, it’s now a shared responsibility to ensure for them “a safe, sustainable and dignified return to their own home and integration with the social, economic and political life of Myanmar.”
Harmid also applauded Francis’s “very laudable” position in favor of the Rohingya, saying that the pope’s call for the world to come to their aid gives “moral responsibility to the international community to act with promptness and sincerity.”
During his remarks, the president also delivered a strong condemnation of terrorism, saying that there’s “Zero Tolerance” for violent extremism and the root causes of terrorism.
“At the same time, like other Muslim majority countries, we remain concerned about the rise of Islamophobia and hate crimes in many western societies, which is adversely affecting lives of millions of peaceful people of faith,” Harmid said.
At the request of Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Francis avoided the term “Rohingya” during the first leg of his Nov. 27-Dec 2 Asian tour, and so far he’s avoided it again here, when praising Bangladesh for welcoming them “at no little sacrifice.”
“None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps,” Francis said, before urging the international community to help by working on resolving the political issues that led to the mass displacement, but also with immediate material assistance.
An estimated 600,000 people have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh since late August, to settle in what until July were undeveloped open fields. Observers have described the precarious refugee camps as among the largest in recent history, comparable to those in Kenya during the Rwandan genocide.
The pope’s words came in the Presidential Palace Bangabhaban, as he was addressing some 400 representatives from the local civil authorities, the diplomatic corps and members of civil society.
Upon arriving in Bangladesh, Francis first visited the “National Martyrs Memorial,” some 20 miles from Dhaka. It was erected in memory of all those who gave their lives in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, which brought independence and separated Bangladesh from Pakistan.
He then visited the Bangbandhu Memorial Museum in honor of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh who is considered the father of the nation. Together with 31 members of his family, Rahman was murdered in 1975, during the country’s war of independence.
Francis referred to Rahman during his first speech in the country, saying that he had understood that, as “members of the one human family,” people need one another.
The founders of Bangladesh, he said, “envisioned a modern, pluralistic and inclusive society,” where people could live in freedom and peace, with the innate dignity respected and where everyone had equal rights.
“The future of this young democracy and the health of its political life are essentially linked to fidelity to that founding vision,” Francis said, adding that true dialogue builds in the service of the common good, paying particular attention to the poor and the voiceless.
Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country, where Catholics amount to a total of some 350,000, representing less than 0.2 percent of the total population, and there are less than 400 priests. It is the world’s eighth most populous country, and also among the poorest: An estimated 30 percent of the population live under the poverty line, earning less than $2 a day.
Francis’s visit is the second by a pope to Bangladesh, after John Paul II’s 1986 visit. Pope Paul VI made a stopover in 1970 in what was then still East Pakistan.
During his Nov. 30-Dec. 2 visit to the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, Francis will hold an inter-religious meeting, with Rohingya Muslims among the VIP guests, and will celebrate Mass for more than 100,000 people, where he will ordain 16 priests. That echoes a similar action by John Paul II, who ordained 18 priests in the 1980s.
Francis will then spend his last moments here with the local youth, much as he did in Myanmar.
In his address to authorities, Francis presented Bangladesh as a country known for the harmony among followers of various religions, saying that such a witness is “all the more necessary” in a world where religion “is often – scandalously – misused to foment division.”
Officially, Bangladesh is a secular country where religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed. An estimated 86 percent of the population is Muslim, over 10 percent Hindu and the rest Buddhist, Christian or animist.
Open Doors International, a U.S.-based non-profit that focuses on Christian persecution worldwide, has defined the level of persecution for the country’s tiny Christian minority as “very high,” perpetrated not at an official level, but by Islamic radicals.
A few days before the visit, a priest who was among those who are to meet the pope on Saturday, was kidnapped, and many here believe Islamic State (ISIS) is behind it.
The global papal foundation “Aid to the Church in Need,” which supports persecuted Christians, carried an article on its website with the headline, “Oppressed Christians in Bangladesh are awaiting papal visit.” One of the country’s 12 bishops, Bejoy Nicephorus D’Cruze, of the Diocese of Sylhet in the northeast of the country, said that despite the law, Christians face daily discrimination and don’t have the same education or job opportunities.
Father Adam Pereira, of the University of Notre Dame in Bangladesh, said that the situation of Christians here is “better than in Pakistan,” a country that’s consistently in the top five worst nations for Christians, usually after North Korea and Afghanistan.
“We have the support of the prime minister and the government, they’re behind us and other religious minorities,” Pereira told Crux on the day of the pope’s arrival. Fundamentalism, he said, is “not the rule,” but happens often enough that many live with fear, hence they’d want “more freedom.”
Certainly aware of that background, but in keeping with his hesitation to deliver inflammatory remarks during his third Asian tour, Francis said the Church in Bangladesh appreciates “the freedom to practice her faith and to pursue her charitable works, which benefit the entire nation.”
He listed some of these works, reminding local politicians that despite being relatively few in numbers, Catholics “play a constructive role in the development of the country,” particularly through schools, clinics and dispensaries.
“Indeed, the vast majority of the students and many of the teachers in these schools are not Christians, but from other religious traditions,” Francis noted. “I am confident that, in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the national constitution, the Catholic community will continue to enjoy the freedom to carry out these good works as an expression of its commitment to the common good.”
In an interview in the palace after the speech, Marcia Bernicat, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, said that that the pope’s remarks about unity and diversity “were very welcomed.”
When asked if the pope should have mentioned the word Rohingya, Bernicat said Francis did express “in explicit terms the tragedy that has occurred in Burma,” and also expressed her appreciation for his acknowledgement of what Bangladesh has done to welcome the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar.
“I have heard the Rohingya described as people who have been stripped entirely of everything. But they have their name. But to me the most important thing is do they have a voice,” the U.S. ambassador said, “and for everyone who bears witness to the suffering that they have been experiencing, we help give them, and we help amplify, their voice.”