ROME – Just two months after his recent visit to Bangladesh, Pope Francis Monday welcomed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to the Vatican, where they discussed positive inter-faith relations in the country and the need to find a lasting solution to the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis.
According to a Feb. 12 Vatican communique, the conversation was cordial and highlighted the positive bilateral relations between the two and the success of Francis’s recent, Nov. 30-Dec. 2 visit to Bangladesh.
In particular, the “keen participation” of many non-Catholics was emphasized, as Bangladesh is a majority Muslim nation. Catholics are a small minority in Bangladesh, numbering only 375,000 – 0.2 percent – out of a total population of almost 156 million people.
The two spoke in English with the help of the pope’s official interpreter, Monsignor Mark Miles. As Hasina walked in, she told the pope that she was “very glad you were able to visit Bangladesh,” and Francis expressed his own gratitude, saying “thank you.”
In the conversation, which lasted for 20 minutes, Francis and Hasina also discussed the Catholic Church’s contribution to education in the country, as well as the State’s efforts in promoting peaceful relations among different religious communities.
They also focused on the need to defend minorities and refugees. To this end, appreciation was voiced to the Bangladeshi government for welcoming Rohingya Muslim refugees, whose plight was a major underlying theme of the pope’s visit to both Myanmar – also called Burma – and Bangladesh last fall.
A largely Muslim ethnic group who reside in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the Rohingya have faced a sharp increase in state-sponsored violence in their homeland, recently reaching staggering levels that have led the United Nations to declare the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
With an increase in persecution in their home country of Myanmar, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh, and are living in refugee camps.
Francis personally greeted 18 members of the Rohingya community who were present at a Dec. 1 interreligious encounter in Dhaka, Bangladesh, asking forgiveness on behalf of all who persecute the Burmese minority.
In the pope’s meeting with Hasina, the two voiced hope that a “just and lasting solution to their ordeal” might be reached soon.
After the meeting the pope met the prime minister’s nine-person delegation and the two exchanged gifts. For her part, Hasina gave Francis an image of a boat, believed to be filled with migrants.
Francis in turn gifted Hasina the medal of peace, which he often gives to the heads of state he receives, as well as a copy of his 2018 Message for Peace and his environmental encyclical Laudato Si.
Hasina then met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, under-Secretary for Relations with States.