ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis on Saturday defended his decision not to use the word “Rohingya” to refer to the persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar while in the country this week, saying, “It wasn’t the first time I used it, several times from St. Peter’s Square in the Angelus or the public audience, I named them. Everyone knew what I thought.”
The pope was responding to a question posed by a journalist who asked him if he regretted not using the word Rohingya while he was in Myanmar from Nov. 27-30.
“For me, the most important thing is that the message arrives,” he said.
The pope said that he’d realized that if in his public remarks he used the word, he’d be “slamming the door in the face” of the local government. “But I described the situation,” he said, appealing for the rights of all to be respected, with no one being excluded, and asked for everyone to be granted citizenship.
Since late August, the military in Myanmar have been perpetrating an ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority, forcing some 625,000 of them into Bangladesh. Since the 1980s, their country of origin doesn’t recognize them as citizens, but as “Bengali interlopers,” despite the fact that they’ve been in Rakhine state for generations.
“It’s true, I didn’t have the satisfaction of publicly slamming the door in their face, but I had the satisfaction of building a dialogue,” he said. “This is very important in communication. That the message arrives. With violence, dialogue is closed, the door is closed, and the message doesn’t arrive.”
Francis’s words came as he was answering questions posed to him by journalists traveling with him during his visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh.
During the hour-long presser, the Argentine pontiff took ownership of the narrative, by deciding to answer only questions related to the trip, with two exceptions, which were posed before he asked for more trip-related questions: Nuclear deterrence and a possible trip to India, originally planned for this one, in a tour that was set to include Bangladesh, but not Myanmar.
On the matter of nuclear deterrence, Francis said that in his opinion, “we’re at the limit of what is licit” when it comes to possessing and using nuclear weapons, he said.
The pope was asked about a speech he gave a month ago, at a conference on nuclear disarmament organized by the Vatican, and which included a dozen of Nobel Peace Prize winners, and representatives of a handful of nuclear powers, including the United States and Russia.
At the time, the pontiff had said that nuclear weapons are not only immoral but “must also be considered an illegal means of warfare.”
The question posed to him contrasted his words with what John Paul II wrote in 1982, in a letter to the United Nations: “In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable.”
Francis was asked if something in the current global situation, particularly the threats and insults exchanged by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had prompted the change in position.
“Irrationality has changed,” Francis said. “From the time in which Pope John Paul II said this, many years have gone by.”
In these years, nuclear weapons have developed to the point in which people can be killed while leaving infrastructure intact, he said.
“Today, with such a sophisticated nuclear arsenal, we risk the destruction of humanity or at least a great part of humanity,” he said.
The pope said he asked himself that question, “not as pontifical magisterium, but it is a pope asking the question,” is it licit to continue having nuclear arsenals as they are, or if “to save creation, humanity, isn’t it necessary to take a step back.”
After questioning nuclear power, saying it’s hard to control, “think about the accident in Ukraine,” he insisted that he believes the world is on the limit of what is licit, “because [these] weapons are to defeat by destroying.”
As a footnote, Francis’s statement back in November builds on an appeal made by Pope Benedict XVI, who in his 2006 World Day of Peace message wrote about governments which count on nuclear weapons to ensure the safety of their countries: He called the attitude not only “baneful but also completely fallacious.”
“The truth of peace requires that all —whether those governments which openly or secretly possess nuclear arms, or those planning to acquire them— agree to change their course by clear and firm decisions, and strive for a progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament,” Benedict wrote, echoing the condemnation of the possession of nuclear weapons made by the Second Vatican Council and Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in terris.
In addition, the Vatican’s official position on nuclear deterrence was made clear in 2014, when the Holy See circulated a paper titled “Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition” during the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. In it, the Church stated that “the system of nuclear weapons can no longer be deemed a policy that stands firmly on moral ground.”
Regarding India, Francis said that the paperwork necessary to make the trip happen was taking too long, and time was running out.
“It was providential,” he said. “To visit India, you need a stand-alone trip. You have to go to the south, the center, the north, the east, because of the country’s diverse cultures. I hope I can go in 2018.”
As he usually does when talking about planning ahead, he added, “if I’m alive.”
At a different point, the pope reiterated that “I would like to meet China, I don’t deny it.”
Asked about recent criticism from some sectors of the international community of Nobel Peace Prize awardee Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been the head of the first democratically elected government in Myanmar in over sixty years, the pope said that he’d heard about it. However, he added, in Myanmar it’s hard to evaluate a criticism without asking what could realistically be expected.
“The situation of Myanmar, is one of political growth, in transition, that has many cultural historical values, but is in transition,” the pope said. “Possibilities [of action] must also be evaluated in this optic.”
Beyond the pope’s decision not to use the word “Rohingya” during the trip, another matter that loomed large throughout the trip was his meeting with General Min Aung Hlaing, which took place on Monday, soon after his landing. The encounter, held at the bishop’s residence where Francis stayed during the trip, was a last-minute addition to the program, originally scheduled for Friday, and local press interpreted the change as the army trying to make the point that the military still runs the country.
The pontiff said that the change was due to the fact that the Burmese military chief had a scheduled trip to China.
“I was interested in the dialogue, and they came to me,” Francis told reporters. Once he said his message was coming through, he “dared to say everything I wanted to say.”
Going forward in Myanmar, he said, will be complicated, but it also won’t be easy for those who would want to go backwards, because of the “conscience of humanity,” that has acknowledged the crisis, with the United Nations labeling the Rohingya as the world’s most persecuted ethnic and religious minority.
Ahead of the trip, his third to Asia, many pundits and human rights groups had challenged the pope’s decision to be discreet, saying that his moral authority would be tarnished if he didn’t say the word. Francis did meet a group of 18 Rohingya in Bangladesh, asking their forgiveness for “the world’s indifference.”
Francis said he was following the advice of his people on the ground, who vehemently insisted he didn’t use the word, saying that it would make the situation worse.
“I knew I was going to encounter them, I didn’t know where or how, but it was a condition for the trip,” he said on Saturday. After meeting them, while he apologized for humanity’s indifference for their situation, the pope cried, “but I didn’t want for it to be noticed.”
What he said regarding his meeting with the general further helps explain his decision: “He asked to speak, I welcomed him. I never close the door. You ask to talk, come. Nothing is lost by talking, it’s always a victory.”
He refused to give details, because it was a private conversation, but did say that “I didn’t negotiate the truth. But I did so in a way that it’s clear that going back to the path of the past is not viable.”
By the past, he means a military dictatorship, which could return at any time, because Myanmar’s constitution, drafted by the military in 2008, has a provision for this, in the case the democratic government is “in crisis.”