DHAKA, Bangladesh — During the fifth day of his Nov. 26-Dec. 2 trip to Asia, visiting Buddhist and Muslim majority countries, Pope Francis continued to outline his strategy for interreligious dialogue, urging the 10 Catholic bishops of Bangladesh to work with leaders of other faiths to be able to speak with one voice against the violence that “parades as religion.”
Francis told the prelates that the Church’s commitment to interreligious understanding, fostered through seminars and education, but also through personal encounters, “contributes to spread the good will and harmony,” and bridge-building and dialogue helps awaken the “spiritual energies” needed to work in building a nation of justice and peace.
“When religious leaders speak out with one voice against the violence that parades as religion and seek to replace the culture of conflict with the culture of encounter, they draw from the deepest spiritual roots of their various traditions,” Francis said on Friday, the day before he returns to Rome.
What the pope told the bishops of Bangladesh builds on what he told 47 Buddhist monks in Myanmar, where he urged members of the Supreme “Sangha” Council of Buddhist monks to join in offering a “common witness” by religious leaders.
“When we speak with one voice in affirming the timeless values of justice, peace and the fundamental dignity of each human person, we offer a word of hope,” he said.
This witness, Francis told the monks, is particularly needed at a time when, despite technological progress and a rising awareness in society of our common humanity, “the wounds of conflict, poverty and oppression persist, and create new divisions.”
In other words, the Argentine pontiff, who’s been engaged in interreligious dialogue since he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is convinced that the heart of inter-faith encounter isn’t debating theological differences, but joining forces to promote peace and justice as well as delegitimizing violence justified on religious grounds.
In recent years, Francis created the first-ever cardinals for both Myanmar and Bangladesh, Charles Maung Bo and Patrick D’Rozario, and he found in them interlocutors for what he’s trying to accomplish with his outreach to leaders of different religions, particularly in countries where Christians are a small minority.
“We are also saddened together with the people of other religions, when we see the instances of the powerful depriving the rights of the powerless, religious bigotry, ill treatment of religious and ethnic minorities along with the violations of the rights, militant and terrorist attacks and killings, corruption and lack of good governance,” D’Rozario said on Friday, addressing the pope during the meeting with bishops.
The encounter took place at a home for elderly priests.
Before the meeting, Francis welcomed Bangladesh’s prime minister in the bishop’s residence where he’s been staying, and paid a short visit to the Cathedral. Here, he told some 700 faithful and benefactors that preaching the Gospel is not about “proselytism but witnessing. This is evangelization.”
In a show of “walking the talk,” after his meeting with the bishops he’ll head an interreligious and ecumenical gathering in Dhaka, with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians participating. Included in the list will be members of the Rohingya Muslim community, an embattled minority from Myanmar that’s fallen victim to what the United Nations has called “ethnic cleansing.”
Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country, where Christians represent 0.3 percent of the total population. The Catholic Church has an estimated 375,000 faithful and fewer than 400 priests. Yet it’s been “blessed with vocations to the priesthood,” as Francis put it, since there are 793 seminarians.
Even though religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution and members of the local church feel the government has their back, there have been isolated yet regular cases of anti-minority bias at the grassroots level.
For instance, Father Walter William Rosario was kidnapped on Monday, from the same village where a Christian businessman was murdered June 5. Though there are more questions than certainties, people on the ground believe he’s been kidnapped by Islamic State, the fundamentalist Islamic group that’s been named responsible for genocide against Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq.
Speaking to the bishops on Friday, Francis also urged them to promote the participation of the laity, saying that they are to be recognized, valued and encouraged to put their gifts at the service of both the Church and society as a whole.
Most of his speech, in fact, was about how he expects the bishops to promote the work of the laity, based on a pastoral plan the local church set up back in 1985.
“The reality of communion was at the heart of the Pastoral Plan, and it continues to inspire the missionary zeal that distinguishes the Church in Bangladesh,” Francis said, praising the bishops’ leadership, rooted in mutual support.
Their spirit of affective collegiality, the pope continued, is shared by the priests and spread to the parishes and communities. He urged them to “persevere in this ministry of presence.”
In his remarks, Francis had words encouraging the bishops to continue focusing on catechists, “true missionaries and leaders of prayer;” the youth, “all of us are challenged to think about how best to share with our young people the joy, the truth and the beauty of our faith,” and the family, “one of the Church’s most effective agents of evangelization.”
Speaking about the Bangladesh Church’s “prophetic” preferential option for the poor, he said that the Catholic community here can be “proud of its history of service,” yet in light of the present refugee crisis – the country is hosting an estimated one million Rohingya who have arrived from Myanmar in recent years – “we see how much more needs to be done!
“By working to create a “culture of mercy,” your local churches demonstrate their option for the poor, reinforce their proclamation of the Father’s infinite mercy, and contribute in no small measure to the integral development of their homeland,” the pope said.
Francis began his second day in Bangladesh by saying Mass for thousands of people. During the liturgy, he ordained 16 new priests, mirroring a similar action by Pope John Paul II, who ordained 18 when he was here in 1986.