Perhaps as important as what Pope Francis said during his speech in Burma on Tuesday was what he didn't say.
Speculation had circled around the question of whether the pope would use the term “Rohingya” to describe the country’s Muslim minority that has been the target of a brutal military “clearance operation.”
Rohingya Muslims are not officially recognized as a minority in Burma — also known as Myanmar — even though many have lived there for generations. Burmese officials, and many among the predominantly Buddhist population, reject the label “Rohingya” and instead use “Bengalis,” in an effort to bolster their claim that the Rohingya migrated illegally to the country from Bangladesh.
To the relief of some and the dismay of others, the pope refrained from using the term during an interfaith meeting and in a subsequent speech Tuesday, which he gave following a meeting with Burma's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The civilian leader is accused of ignoring human rights violations in the country.
The pope did use his speech to urge respect for minority rights.
“The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group — none excluded — to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good,” the pope said.
Burma’s small Catholic community had urged the pope to refrain from using the term Rohingya, as such a move would likely have been interpreted as foreign meddling in domestic affairs by the Burmese leadership.
But as a religious leader who has repeatedly defied the restraint his predecessors often showed, observers believed that Pope Francis could have still emphasized his support for the minority by deliberately using the factually correct but politically fraught term.
Pope Francis had already prayed for “our Rohingya brothers and sisters” ahead of his visit. But his refusal to reuse the term while in Burma was criticized as a contradictory signal by a figure who has been a vocal supporter of refugees across the globe and was previously quoted as saying that he does not like “the contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand, are against refugees and other religions.”
“The Pope missed an important opportunity to tell Myanmar that every group has the right to self-identify, and to publicly refute the unconscionable pressure by Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military to deny the Rohingya their identity,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email.
Whereas some had hoped that the pope’s use of the term would have increased pressure on Burma’s leadership to refrain from further repression and violence targeting Rohingya Muslims, others feared that such a move could have escalated tensions further.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border into Bangladesh in recent months amid a violent military crackdown. The U.S. government classified the violence as “ethnic cleansing” last week, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blamed the Burmese government, military and local vigilantes for “horrendous atrocities” in Burma’s western Rakhine state.
The Burmese military denies that any atrocities have taken place, and members of other religious groups in the country, such as Buddhists and Hindus, claim that they were in fact the targets of violence by the Rohingya.
After meeting with the pope Monday, Burmese Gen. Min Aung Hlaing wrote in a post on social media that there “is no religious discrimination in Myanmar as the country ensures religious freedom.”
He said that in the course of the meeting “the pope prayed for ensuring peace, tranquility and development of Myanmar.” It was unclear whether the pope had raised human rights concerns in the meeting.
The pope will meet Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh later on during his six-day visit, which ends Saturday.
Burma’s Catholic Church leadership has refrained from calling the violence against the Rohingya minority “ethnic cleansing” — likely because of fears of repercussions that the use of the term could have for the Catholic minority, which numbers just 650,000 in a country of 53 million.