Myanmar and Bangladesh await Pope Francis

Pope Francis is acting on his own call that the Church go out to the peripheries with his visits to Myanmar (formerly Burma) from Nov. 27-30 and to Bangladesh from Nov. 30–Dec. 2. In both places he will find Catholic communities that are not only poor, but are small minorities in countries faced with new problems. His visit likely will encourage the Catholic communities, but what impact he will have on the hosting governments remains to be seen.

More than once he has deplored the “persecution of ... our Muslim brothers,” meaning the Rohingya people who are fleeing from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh. Reportedly over half a million of the 1.1 million Rohingya have crossed the border, which creates problems for Bangladesh. Many are in overcrowded refugee camps.

Plight of the Rohingya

In Myanmar, 135 different ethnic groups are recognized, but the Rohingya are not among them. They are a people without a state. They claim they have always lived where they are, whereas Myanmar nationalists say they are intruders from Bangladesh. They are mainly Muslims who always have been disadvantaged in Myanmar, where 75 percent are Buddhists.

For almost 50 years, until 2015, Myanmar was ruled by a military dictatorship.

For more than a decade, the leading opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991, was kept under house arrest, but in 2015 political parties were allowed to contest a credible election, and her party won. She has a role corresponding to that of prime minister, and she has promised an inclusive society.

However, an attack by Rohingya militants in October on a police station in which nine police were killed led to reprisals and the mass migration to Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi has downplayed the situation, denying that there is ethnic cleaning, an attitude that has disappointed many former admirers in and out of Myanmar.

Leaders in Myanmar

The archbishop of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, who was made a cardinal in 2016, has deplored the anti-Rohingya violence and called for an independent enquiry by the United Nations, but he also stressed that Aung San Suu Kyi should not be written off because the difficult process of democratizing Myanmar depends on her.

Cardinal Bo, a 68-year-old Salesian, is aware that the military are assigned three crucial ministries and could put an end to the fragile democracy at any moment. Moreover, some Buddhist monks founded a Movement for the Protection of Race and Religion, which promotes that idea that the true Burmese are Buddhists. The movement is accused of spreading hatred and violence and has links with the main parliamentary opposition party. As well as meeting state, civic and political leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, the bishops of the 16 dioceses and the faithful at a Mass in a Yangon park, Pope Francis is to meet the government-appointed ruling committee of Buddhist monks.

The Rohingya, who are Muslims, are not the only disadvantaged minority in Burma. Christians make up slightly more than 8 percent of the population of 53 million (Muslims around 4 percent and Hindus around 2 percent). Most of the Christians are found in two regions, Chin and Kachin, where some of their churches have been attacked by the military. And the Catholic schools throughout Burma, which were confiscated by the military, have yet to be returned to the Church.

If Pope Francis adheres to Cardinal Bo’s approach, he will speak out for human and religious rights and encourage leaders to make Myanmar a peaceful place for all.

Issues in Bangladesh

Pope Francis will find a different threat to Christian and other minorities in Bangladesh. When the British abandoned control of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, they divided it between India, with a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, with Muslim majority. Pakistan was in two distinct parts on opposite sides of the subcontinent. In 1971 what had been East Pakistan won a war for independence and changed its name to Bangladesh. The spur to independence in this case was not religious but economic-political autonomy. On arrival Pope Francis is to pay homage to the nation’s founder, Mujibur Rahman, and also to the “martyrs” who died to create it.

For many years the Christians, who comprise just half of 1 percent of the population of 160 million, and other religious minorities were tolerated in what many Bangladeshi considered a lay state. But in 2016 the Bangladesh High Court decided it was an Islamic state, which made the minorities more vulnerable.

There have been recent cases of terrorist attacks on minorities, both religious and not. This has frightened many because not only is there a local terrorist group, but al-Qaida and ISIS terrorists are said to be present. There is fear of competition in ferocity between these groups to gain recruits.

The archbishop of the capital Dacca, 73-year-old Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, who was made a cardinal last year, says the worst terrorist attack, in which 28 were killed in a Dacca restaurant, was due to outsiders. He maintains that Bangladesh has long been an example of religious harmony and points out that the government has called all religious leaders together, including himself, to form a common front against such violence. He added that the Muslim community has condemned the confusion of religion with violence. Ecumenical and intrareligious relations are crucial in these circumstances. Just such a meeting will take place with Pope Francis in the garden of Cardinal D’Rozario’s residence. The fact that the pope has never identified Islam with terrorism will be to his advantage.

Modeling the way forward

As well as meeting the bishops of Bangladesh’s eight dioceses and, separately, the priests, men and women religious, seminarians and novices, Francis is to ordain a group of priests during a Mass in a historic Dacca park. Many missionary orders, including the Jesuits, the Xaverians and the Holy Cross Fathers, who run the University of Notre Dame in the United States, operate in Bangladesh, but the majority of priests nowadays are indigenous Bangladeshi. Cardinal D’Rozario is an example — he is a member of the Holy Cross Order. The pope also is to address youth at the capital’s Holy Cross College.

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Bengalese priests are working as missionaries in Africa, elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific islands. Catholics run nearly a thousand educational institutes, many of whose students are Muslims. About 70 percent of the Catholic Caritas personnel are Muslim — an indicator of the harmony which terrorists would like to turn into hate.

Although Catholics are less than 0.3 percent of the population, Cardinal D’Rozario sees them as giving a lead to all Bangladeshi about the way forward for the society.

“The salt is only a tiny amount in a plate of rice” he reportedly said, “but it gives it flavor.”

This chimes with Pope Francis’s desire, which will be given a trial run during his trip to Asia, to speak for all the world’s poor and discarded.

Desmond O’Grady writes from Rome.