Magazine article The Christian Century

Pope Attends to Plight of Rohingya on Visit to Myanmar, Bangladesh

Magazine article The Christian Century

Pope Attends to Plight of Rohingya on Visit to Myanmar, Bangladesh

Article excerpt

Pope Francis opened a diplomatically fraught trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh by immediately diving into the crisis over Myanmar's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims: he met with the country's military chief even before beginning the official program of his trip.

"They spoke of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition," said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke of Francis's 15-minute visit with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in the residence of the archbishop of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Bo.

The general is in charge of security in Rakhine State, where the military's "clearance operations" against the Muslim minority have sent more than 620,000 Rohingya fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh. Refugees there have told of entire villages being burned and women and girls being raped.

The pope's meeting with the general was set up to occur before his visit to the country's civilian leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi; the Vatican did not say why.

The general's office said in a statement that he is willing to have "interfaith peace, unity, and justice" and that there was no religious or ethnic persecution or discrimination in Myanmar.

Rohingya Muslims have faced state-supported discrimination in the predominantly Buddhist country for decades. Although members of the ethnic minority first arrived generations ago, they were stripped of their citizenship in 1982, denying them almost all rights and rendering them stateless. They cannot travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors, and they have little access to medical care, food, or education.

Pope Francis's trip was planned before the latest spasm of violence erupted in August, when a group of Rohingya militants attacked security positions in Rakhine and Myanmar security forces responded with a scorched-earth campaign.

"Being a religious leader--Catholic leader--means that he is well-regarded, but of course there is this worry if he says something, people might say, 'OK, he just came to meddle,'" said Burmese analyst Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner. "A lot of diplomacy is needed, in addition to the public relations."

In Myanmar the government and most of the Buddhist majority recoil from calling the people "Rohingya," saying instead that they are "Bengalis" who migrated illegally from Bangladesh.

Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest who is part of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote in a commentary that "Myanmar's cardinal, Archbishop Charles Bo, asked the pope not to use the word Rohingya because he feared the small Catholic minority would be attacked. …

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