A little girl kisses Pope Francis' hand as he visits the Mother Theresa house in the Tejgaon neighbourhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 2. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope calls for respect as he listens to Rohingya refugees

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  • December 9, 2017
VATICAN – Pope Francis’ skill at walking political and pastoral tightropes was put to the test in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The political implications of his Nov. 27-30 stay in Myanmar and his Nov. 30-Dec. 2 stop in Bangladesh grabbed the headlines mainly because of the situation of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority being pushed from Myanmar’s Rakhine state and seeking refuge in Bangladesh.

For the Pope, the political and pastoral sides of the trip were interwoven, including his attention to the Rohingya and his defence of their rights.

After avoiding the term “Royingha” while in Myanmar, the Pope met Rohingya refugees at the end of an inter-religious gathering in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 1, and said each human being is created in God’s image and likeness. “Today, the presence of God is also called Rohingya,” he said after each of the 16 refugees briefly told their stories.

“They, too, are images of the living God,” Pope Francis told Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu leaders. “Let’s not close our hearts. Let’s not look away.”

During the Myanmar portion of the trip, the Pope never said “Rohingya” in public, following warnings that the very mention of the word could incite violence.

“If I would have used the word, the door would have closed,” he told reporters Dec. 2 during his flight from Dhaka to Rome.

The Myanmar military, claiming a crack down on militants, has been accused of a massive persecution of the Rohingya to the point that some describe it as “ethnic cleansing.” More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled across the Bangladeshi border.

The government of Myanmar regards the Rohingya as undocumented immigrants.

“I knew that if, in an official speech, I would have used the word, they would close the door in my face,” the Pope told reporters. However, “I described the situation” publicly, knowing “I could go further in the private meetings” with government officials.

“I was very, very satisfied with the meetings,” the Pope said. “I dared to say everything I wanted to say.”

During his flight back to Rome, the Pope also admitted to reporters that he “yelled a bit” before the meeting with Rohingya refugees in Dhaka.

Arrangements were made for 16 refugees to travel to Dhaka from Cox’s Bazar, where the huge refugee camps are, so they could join the Pope and Bangladeshi religious leaders for a meeting devoted to peace.

Pope Francis said he could not just let them shake his hand and be whisked away, as some event organizers seemed to think was proper.

“And there I got upset. I yelled a bit. I’m a sinner,” he said.

He had a few minutes with each of them, listening to their stories with the help of an interpreter, holding their hands and looking into their eyes.

“I was crying, but tried to hide it,” the Pope told reporters. “They were crying, too.”

The Catholic communities in both Myanmar and Bangladesh are very small; Catholics make up slightly more than one per cent of the population in Myanmar and only a quarter of one per cent of the population in Bangladesh. Yet, in both countries, the influence of the Church is disproportionately large because of the contributions of Catholic schools, hospitals and other activities.

In Myanmar, the majority of people are Buddhist and in Bangladesh the majority are Muslim. On the return flight to Rome, Pope Francis was asked about how a Catholic should balance a commitment to inter-religious dialogue and a commitment to evangelization with the hope of welcoming converts into the Church.

The key, the Pope said, is witness. It is not about trying to persuade someone to become Christian. That is the Holy Spirit’s job, he said, but individuals must prepare the way by offering a living witness of what it means to be Christian.

The main ingredients of witness, he said, are living according to “the Beatitudes, giving testimony to Matthew 25 (feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick), the Good Samaritan and forgiving 70 times seven.”

The Pope met privately with a varied group of religious leaders in Myanmar before holding a formal meeting with leaders of the nation’s Buddhist community Nov. 29.

Quoting Buddha and a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope insisted that in a land where the powerfully bonded pairing of religion and ethnicity have been used to prolong conflict, it was time for religious leaders to reclaim the greatest values and virtues of their faith traditions.

Pope Francis also held separate meetings in both countries with the nation’s bishops. In Myanmar, he told the bishops that the idea that differences are a threat to peaceful coexistence is an example of an “ideological colonization” sweeping the world and trying to make everyone the same.

“The unity we share and celebrate is born of diversity,” he said. Unity in the Church and in a nation “values people’s differences as a source of mutual enrichment and growth. It invites people to come together in a culture of encounter and solidarity.”

As Myanmar continues its transition to democratic rule and tries to deal with the challenges of development and full equality for all its ethnic groups, Pope Francis told the bishops to ensure that their voices are heard, “particularly by insisting on respect for the dignity and rights of all, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.”

Before leaving the country, he celebrated Mass Nov. 30 with thousands of young people from throughout Myanmar. He told them to be messengers of the “good news” of God’s love and mercy.

“As messengers of this good news, you are ready to bring a word of hope to the Church, to your own country, and to the wider world,” he said. “You are ready to bring good news to your suffering brothers and sisters who need your prayers and your solidarity, but also your enthusiasm for human rights, for justice and for the growth of that love and peace which Jesus brings.”


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