DHAKA, Banghaldesh — During Pope Francis’s Nov.27-Dec. 2 trip to Asia, one issue loomed large over everything he did and said – or didn’t say: The ongoing Rohingya crisis, with over 625,000 members of the Muslim minority fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh since August.
After avoiding the word “Rohingya” in Myanmar, Francis used it on Friday: “Let’s not close our hearts, let’s not look to the other side, the presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
His words came as he was closing an interreligious prayer for peace in Dhaka, in the garden of the archbishop’s house, where the pope met with 16 Rohingya – members of three refugee families, who briefly spoke with him with the help of three translators, two of whom are volunteers working with the Catholic aid agency Caritas, and Monsignor Mark Miles, who’s always with him when he travels to English-speaking countries.
Among them, 12 were men, two women, wearing niqabs, and two girls.
During the short exchanges, the pope patted them on the head, held their hands and was visibly moved by what he was hearing.
“In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, of those who’ve done you wrong, above all, the world’s indifference, I ask you for forgiveness,” Francis said. “I now appeal to your big heart, that you’re able to grant us the forgiveness we seek.”
Among those who met with the pope was Mohammed Ayub, 32, whose three year old son was killed by the Myanmar military said. Ahead of the encounter he said he wanted for Francis to use the word Rohingya: “He is the leader of the world. He should say the word as we are Rohingya.”
Abdul Fyez, 35, who had a brother killed by the military, agreed. “We have been Rohingya for generations, my father and my grandfather,” he said.
During the first leg of the trip, Francis referred to the crisis repeatedly, but always indirectly, urging Myanmar to overcome its ethnic conflicts and to build a peace based on the respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, each ethnic group and its identity, none excluded.
Yet following the advice of his own cardinal on the ground, he avoided direct mention of the Rohingya. The closest he came to it was the first public Mass he celebrated, on Wednesday, in which the prayer of the faithful included one for the end of conflicts in the states of Kachin, Rakhine and Shan. Rakhine is the home of the Rohingya Muslims. In the other two states, Christians are being persecuted, but to a lesser degree.
As soon as he landed in Bangladesh, however, he spoke about the crisis in Rakhine state, saying that “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.”
Since Oct. 2016, Bangladesh, a country with over 160 million people and the eighth most populated in the world, has received an estimated 800,000 Rohingya, who are fleeing violence, discrimination, rape and murder, perpetrated by the military and Buddhist extremists in Myanmar.
The latest flare-up of violence, which began on August 25, has led many in the international community to label the situation as “ethnic cleansing,” and to blame the government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – the first democratically elected government in six decades – of inaction.
Raquel Bernedo Pardal, of Red Cross Spain, told Crux that refugees continue to arrive, with the camps growing daily to accommodate them. Families build their own shelters with the material available, such as bamboo and mud, and with what the charitable organizations on the ground can give them.
There are currently 12 refugee centers, and the United Nations’ refugee agency is present in most of them.
Speaking about the impact of Francis’s visit, Bernedo said she doubts many of the refugees know of him or that he’s here, but members of the NGOs working on the ground do, and have discussed the issue.
“We know that he usually addresses these matters in a conciliatory way, so we hope that he’ll try to mediate between the two governments,” she said from one of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Red Cross Spain is working with Red Half Moon Bangladesh in the Balukali 02 camp.
Bernedo is particularly hoping Francis will be able to convince both governments that the repatriation of the refugees, agreed upon last week and set to start in the next two months, will be done in a way that is safe for them and guarantees their human rights.
Though very few details of the agreement have been released, human rights watch groups have already warned they fear this won’t be the case. In addition, there are ongoing concerns over Bangladesh wanting to send some 100,000 refugees to a remote, flood-prone island. Despite warnings from NGOs, this is a plan that resurfaces every so often, since late last year.
Francis encountered the refugees at the end of a prayer for peace with Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist leaders.
He arrived at the gathering riding a cycle rickshaw, one of Dhaka’s signature means of transportation. His predecessor John Paul II, the last pope to visit the city, also rode one of these, back in 1986.
In his remarks, Francis spoke about building a culture of encounter, something which “entails more than mere tolerance.” Cooperation in favor of the human family “challenges us” to reach out to others, building a unity that sees diversity “not as a threat, but as a potential source of enrichment and growth.”
The pope then said that openness and cooperation between believers is a “beating heart,” much needed by the world today, to counter the “virus of political corruption, destructive religious ideologies, and the temptation to turn a blind eye to the needs of the poor, refugees, persecuted minorities, and those who are most vulnerable.”
Five people welcomed Francis during the encounter, in the name of the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian communities, and one in the name of civil society. In addition, an Anglican bishop said a prayer.
Two of them applauded the pontiff for his defense of the Rohingya. Grand Imam Farid Uddin Masud delivered a welcoming message to Francis, in which he said that the pope is making “tireless efforts to foster and promote humanity and to raise his voice for the oppressed, irrespective of religion, cast and nationality.”
While some quarters in the West have come after Francis for not using the “R” word in Myanmar, the imam said that the pope’s strong support for the Rohingyas “will bring a positive result in regard to the attempts to ensure their human rights.
“For this role of His Holiness, on behalf of the people of all creeds, we pay our tribute and show respect to him,” Masud said. “His role for establishing peace in the world also deserves our whole-hearted respect.”
Speaking in the name of civil society, Professor Anisuzzaman also praised Francis for his support of the refugees: “We note with great relief that the pope has, time and again, expressed his sympathy with the Rohingyas from Myanmar who have been forcibly ejected from their home and earth and subjected to violence and inhuman treatment.”
Another common theme through some of the messages delivered in the prayer service was the condemnation of violence perpetrated in the name of God and terrorism.
Anglican Bishop Philip Sarkar, reading a prayer, said: “Oh Righteous Lord, there are many people today in our world who are victims of terrorism, conflicts, oppression and exploitation. Religious and ethnic minorities are suffering from hatred and discrimination in many countries around the world.”