ROME – Pope Francis made foreign politics the focus of his weekly general audience, pinpointing the highlights of his recent trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh and calling on the international community not to destabilize the current situation in Jerusalem.
“I cannot remain silent about my deep concern for the situation that has developed in recent days and, at the same time, I wish to make a heartfelt appeal to ensure that everyone is committed to respecting the status quo of the city, in accordance with the relevant Resolutions of the United Nations,” the pope said Dec. 6 in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made clear his intention to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the embassy there from its current position in Tel Aviv. The decision could potentially dismantle 22 years of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and would likely enrage Muslims who view Jerusalem as the potential capital of the Palestinian state.
“Jerusalem is a unique city, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, where the Holy Places for the respective religions are venerated, and it has a special vocation to peace,” Francis said. “I pray to the Lord that such identity be preserved and strengthened for the benefit of the Holy Land, the Middle East and the entire world, and that wisdom and prudence prevail, to avoid adding new elements of tension in a world already shaken and scarred by many cruel conflicts.”
The pope experienced first hand the consequences of war and conflict during his recent trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh. His was the first papal trip to Myanmar, a country that has recently been making headlines all over the world due to what the United Nations has called “textbook ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslim minority there.
“I wished, also in this case, to express Christ’s and the Church’s closeness to a people that have suffered due to conflicts and repressions and are now slowly moving toward a new condition of freedom and peace,” Francis said. “A people where the Buddhist religion is deeply rooted, with its spiritual and ethical principles, and where Christians are present as a small flock and yeast of the Kingdom of God.”
Most importantly the pope, who has recently been under scrutiny by some for not calling out the Rohingya by name during his trip and by others for not focusing enough on the persecution against Christians, stressed his commitment to fostering peace.
“Along with meeting the Catholic community, I had a chance to meet Myanmar’s authorities, encouraging the country’s efforts for peace and hoping that all the different components of the nation, none excluded, could cooperate in such a process with mutual respect,” he said.
Francis pointed to the meeting with representatives of the various religious communities in the nation as a crucial step toward peace and encouraged further interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Buddhists to fight evil and promote peace.
The pope recounted the two Masses he celebrated with the local bishop. The first focused on anti-Christian persecution, a reality that also exists in the country, and the second on young people “a sign of hope and a special gift of the Virgin Mary,” which closed his visit.
“In the faces of those young people, filled with joy, I saw the future of Asia: a future that will not belong to those who build weapons, but to those who plant fraternity,” Francis said.
In Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country, the pope’s trip was aimed at fostering dialogue between Islam and Catholicism, following in the footsteps of the previous papal visits by Pope Paul VI and Saint John Paul II. Francis emphasized that the Vatican has long supported the Bangladeshi people’s desire to be an independent nation and their will to promote religious freedom.
“In particular, I wished to express my solidarity toward Bangladesh in its commitment to aiding the massive flow of Rohingya refugees who have entered its territory, where the population density is already among the highest in the world,” the pope said.
During Mass in the capital, Dhaka, Francis expressed his joy at the surge of vocations in many South East Asian countries, including Bangladesh, and invited the local bishops to continue working for families, the poor, dialogue and peace.
“In Dhaka we experienced a moment of strong interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, which gave me the opportunity to underline the openness of the heart as the base for the culture of encounter, for harmony and for peace,” he said.
The pope also praised the work of the religious sisters in the ‘Mother Theresa House’ who “with a smile on their lips” give witness to Christ by administering to many orphans and people with disabilities.
Once again, Francis met with young people in the country. “How well do the Bengalese dance!” he said referring to their joyous liturgical celebrations. “During the encounter there were young Muslims and people of other faiths: a sign of hope for Bangladesh, for Asia and for the entire world.”
At the end of the audience, the pope gave a special salute to the Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Italy who were present and to the priests, sisters and lay people form Myanmar and Bangladesh who came to visit the Vatican after the papal trips.