POPE FRANCIS has defended his decision not to name the Rohingya people publicly while on his recent visit to Myanmar. He said that to do so “would have thrown a door in the face” of his hosts, but insisted he had been more strident in private.
Speaking to journalists on his flight home after his visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, he said that he was satisfied with the meetings that he had had with officials, including the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. He also shared a stage with the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Pope Francis had been criticised by human-rights groups (News, 1 December) for failing to put a name to the suffering of Myanmar’s Rohingya people.
More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in recent months, after violent repression by the country’s security forces. Myanmar has said that the Rohingya are recent migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, and denies them the full rights of Burmese citizenship.
The Pope had been asked to speak out during his visit, but he chose more diplomatic language instead, heeding the advice of senior Roman Catholic figures in Myanmar who have said that even the name Rohingya is a politically charged and sensitive term.
When he flew to Bangladesh later in his visit, Pope Francis did meet Rohingya refugees who have fled to the country. At an inter-religious gathering, he blessed 16 refugees, including a girl who had lost her entire family in the violence conducted by the military in Rakhine state.
He then referred to the Rohingya people by name for the first time, and said: “In the name of all those who persecute you, who have persecuted you, and those who have hurt you, above all in the indifference of the world, I ask you for forgiveness. Forgiveness.”
He told reporters on the plane returning to Rome that he and the refugees had both cried during the encounter. “In that moment I cried. I tried not to let it be seen. They cried, too,” he said.
He is the first pope to visit Myanmar, whose very small Christian community has also suffered from inter-religious violence. The number of Roman Catholics in Bangladesh is also very small, representing just 0.2 per cent of the population.