When Pope Francis went to Burma this week, he spoke often, and passionately, about the rights of minorities.
“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,” he said at one interfaith prayer service.
Francis was clearly referencing the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. The Burmese military has been engaged in a brutal “clearance operation,” burning villages and forcing nearly 650,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh since August.
Francis even went so far as to offer a prayer for the people living in the Rakhine state, where the persecuted Rohingya are based.
However, while in Burma, which is also called Myanmar, the pope declined to use the word “Rohingya.” It was a concession to the country's Catholics, who worried that the word might antagonize Burmese authorities and put them at risk. (Christians are being persecuted in two Burmese states, but not nearly as harshly as the Rohingya.) The Burmese authorities refer to the “Rohingya” as “Bengali,” an effort to bolster the claim that the Rohingya migrated illegally to the country from Bangladesh.
That decision drew some serious backlash from the international human rights community. “The Pope missed an important opportunity to publicly refute the unconscionable pressure by Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military to deny the Rohingya their identity,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email to my colleague.
And as soon as he got to Bangladesh, Pope Francis did what he declined to do before: He called the Rohingya by their name, and asked their forgiveness for “the world's indifference.”
“Let's not close our hearts, let’s not look to the other side,” he said at an interfaith prayer service in Dhaka. “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
He also called the world to action, saying “none of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps.”
In Bangladesh, the pope met with 16 Rohingya refugees. “In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, of those who’ve done you wrong, above all, the world’s indifference, I ask you for forgiveness,” Francis said. “I now appeal to your big heart, that you’re able to grant us the forgiveness we seek.”
One of the Rohingya introduced to Francis was Mohammed Ayub, 32. His 3-year-old son was killed by the Myanmar military. Ahead of his meeting with Francis, he told Crux that he wanted the pope to say “Rohingya.”
“He is the leader of the world. He should say the word, as we are Rohingya,” he said.
Francis arrived at the gathering in a cycle rickshaw, as his predecessor John Paul II did in 1986.