ROME—Marking the Catholic Church’s International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, Pope Francis asked the thousands gathered in Rome for his weekly audience to remember the Rohingya Muslim minority being persecuted in Myanmar.
“And speaking of migrants, driven out, exploited … I would like to pray today with you in a special way for our brothers and sisters Rohingya,” he said on Wednesday.
“They are driven out of Myanmar, going from one place to another because they’re not wanted. They’re good people, peaceful! They aren’t Christians, they’re good [people]. They’re brothers and sisters of ours.”
When Francis first spoke about the Rohingya the room remained quiet, evidencing perhaps that amidst news coming from the United States or the Middle East, little to nothing has been said about them.
“The pain they suffer … they have been tortured, killed, simply because they carry forth their tradition, their Muslim faith,” he said, before leading the thousands who were in the Paul VI hall in prayer.
His appeal in defense of the Rohingya was made “off the cuff,” meaning he wasn’t reading a text when he delivered it.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a papal charity that produces regular reports on religious persecution, describes Myanmar [formerly known as Burma] as a place of “moderate to high” persecution for Christians. However, in their 2016 report they highlight that the most extreme religious persecution has been against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the northern Rakhine state.
They have been living in the country for decades, yet the government labels them as “foreigners” and illegal Bengali migrants.
As ACN notes in its latest report, the Rohingya are denied recognition of their citizenship rights in Myanmar, and since 2012 thousands have been living in “desperate conditions, either held in camps without access to adequate health care or humanitarian assistance, or risking their lives escaping from Burma by boat on the open sea.”
In recent months, thousands have fled to Bangladesh amid a military crackdown on insurgents in Rakhine. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), security forces took part in rape, gang rape, invasive body searches and sexual assaults on Rohingya women and girls as young as 13 in at least nine states.
Many survivors of what HRW described as “sickening” attacks, reported being insulted and threatened on an ethnic or religious basis during the assaults.
On Feb. 2 the United Nations Human Rights Office released a report on the “devastating cruelty” against Rohingya children.
“The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable – what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk,” High Commissioner Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein said.
“And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her – what kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this?”
Several organizations have denounced that there are signs of an ongoing genocide, something the government refuted this January, after setting up a commission to allegedly investigate the situation. The interim report dismissed the allegations on the basis that there are still Rohingya people living in the area.
Senior United Nations officials have described the actions of state forces as ethnic cleansing, while journalists and aid organizations have documented mass rape, murders and beatings. Satellite imagery available on the website of HRW shows entire villages destroyed by Burmese soldiers.
Wednesday was not the first time Pope Francis spoke out in their defense. Back in 2015, he condemned their treatment as a “form of war.”
Myanmar’s Charles Maung Bo, the country’s first Catholic cardinal, created by Francis in 2015, has defined the persecution of the Rohingyas as “an appalling scar on the conscience of my country.”
He has also described them as “among the most marginalized, dehumanized and persecuted people in the world. They are treated worse than animals. Stripped of their citizenship, rejected by neighboring countries, they are rendered stateless.”
Addressing the UK parliament in London on May 25, 2016, Bo denounced that no human being deserves to be treated the way the Rohingyas are.
“Without [a solution], the prospects for genuine peace and true freedom for my country will be denied, for no-one can sleep easy at night knowing how one particular group of people are dying simply due to their race and religion.”
Pope Francis’s comments on Wednesday came at the end of his weekly audience, when he was delivering his usual “appeals.” In this opportunity, he was talking about St. Josephine Bakita, an African nun who before joining a religious community in Italy had been a slave, taken from her family in Sudan when she was 9, and bought and sold five times.
Today, she’s celebrated as the patron of slaves and victims of human trafficking, the world’s second most profitable illegal industry. The Catholic Church marks Feb. 8 as the day of prayer to raise awareness on this issue, that affects 20.9 million people around the world.
As Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster puts it, “It is sobering to think that 200 years after slavery was abolished by law, it is the second most lucrative crime in the world.”
According to the U.S. National Trafficking Hotline, human trafficking victims have been identified in cities, suburbs, and rural areas in all 50 states, and in Washington, D.C.
“This enslaved girl in Africa, exploited, humiliated, didn’t lose hope,” Francis said of Bakita. “She carried on her faith, and arrived as a migrant to Europe, where she felt the call from the Lord and became a nun. Let’s pray to St. Josephine Bakita for all the immigrants, refugees, exploited who suffer so much.”
It was after these remarks that he spoke about the Rohingya.
Earlier in his remarks, he’d urged those in government positions to fight the scourge of human trafficking, particularly children, “giving voice to our younger brothers and sisters who have been wounded in their dignity. All efforts must be made to eradicate this shameful and intolerable crime.”
Francis has often been outspoken against modern day slavery, which he’s defined as a crime against humanity.
During the audience, the pope spoke about the Christian precepts of hope and forgiveness, and their role in forging peace.
In comments that will perhaps be spun as an indirect attack of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, Francis once again appealed for building bridges and not walls among peoples.
“In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges,” he said. “To not respond to evil with evil. To defeat evil with good, the offense with forgiveness.”
According to the pontiff, a Christian would never say “you will pay for that,” because it’s not a Christian gesture. “You overcome an offense with forgiveness. To live in peace with everyone.”