Papal trip reflects a pastor at the peripheries

In advocating for the human rights of an oppressed religious community in a volatile political setting, Pope Francis had to strike a careful diplomatic balancing act in his Nov. 26-Dec. 2 trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh.

“The presence of God today is also called ‘Rohingya,’” he said, referring to an oppressed Muslim community in Myanmar, after speaking to an interfaith audience in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka on Dec. 1. 

Several papal observers believe Pope Francis struck the right tone in defending human dignity, calling for the peaceful coexistence of all religious minorities and showing solidarity with the oppressed Rohingya peoples without further endangering them.

Fraught politics

“Like a doctor, a pastor should do no harm,” said Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace.

Colecchi told Our Sunday Visitor that it was especially important for Pope Francis, as the universal pastor of the Catholic Church, to listen to the Church leaders in Myanmar who had advised the pope before his late November trip to not say the word “Rohingya,” a politically charged term that Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders do not recognize.

“They did not want something to be so explosive that it would have caused harm within the country and perhaps to the Rohingya themselves, as well as to the Christian minority, which has suffered also,” Colecchi said.

The Rohingya, a beleaguered Muslim minority in Myanmar’s poor western Rakhine State, have been targeted by the country’s military and Buddhist radicals in a campaign of killing, rape and arson. As more than 600,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August, the Rohingya’s plight has spiraled into one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises.

Refugees have been arriving in Bangladesh “hungry, exhausted and depleted of any resources. Many have lost loved ones, including children, in the violence. Their escape often involved fleeing a direct attack, watching their houses burn, hiding in the brush as they walked over several days, and going without food,” said Deepti Pant, a Catholic Relief Services country manager stationed in Bangladesh.

The crisis escalated in late August after a new outbreak of fighting began between Myanmar’s military and armed militants in Rakhine State. Myanmar’s government and Buddhist majority view the Rohingya as interlopers from Bangladesh, not as true citizens, and do not even acknowledge the word “Rohingya.”

Other ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar, formerly Burma, also have suffered greatly, including Catholics. Church leaders in Myanmar feared that if the pope spoke out too strongly on the Rohingya, it would provoke a backlash that could set back efforts to secure the minorities’ rights in that country.

“Sometimes, it’s important for us to use quiet diplomacy. Sometimes, it’s important to use public diplomacy. Sometimes, the tone matters a great deal,” Colecchi said. “There are some situations where it would do more harm than good to do what activists might want you to do in a given situation.”

Implicit and explicit

In Myanmar, Pope Francis never uttered the word “Rohingya.” He met with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, and the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner whose international standing has plummeted amidst the crackdown in Rakhine State.

In his public comments in Myanmar, the pope called for tolerance, peace and forgiveness. During an open-air Mass in Yangon, the pope said he knew that many in Myanmar “bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and visible.” He urged them to resist revenge and seek “forgiveness and compassion.” Later that day, the pope uttered public remarks where he said he hoped Buddhist wisdom would help “heal the wounds of conflict that through the years have divided people of different cultures, ethnicities and religious convictions.”

“In the things he said in his trip to Myanmar, he was urging coexistence. He was urging equal treatment of all people. He’s implying something when he says something like that. Even though he didn’t say the word specifically, this humanitarian crisis is clearly on his mind,” said Jordan Denari Duffner, a Catholic scholar of Muslim-Christian relations.

During the pope’s subsequent two-day visit to Bangladesh, he was able to make his support for the Rohingya much clearer. Following his Mass in Dhaka, the Pope met with Rohingya refugees, blessing them and listening to their stories. 

“Your tragedy is very hard, very big. We give you space in our hearts,” the pope said. “In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, those who hurt you, and especially of the world’s indifference, I ask for your forgiveness. Forgive us.”

These remarks, Duffner said, also underscored his constant theological emphasis that God resides with those who are marginalized and suffering, even if they are not Catholic or Christian. Duffer noted that Pope Francis prefaced his Rohingya comment with a creation story from the Islamic tradition.

“I think in addition to highlighting that the divine lives in people who are marginalized and people of other religious communities, he is also not afraid to point to, as Nostra Aetate the Vatican II document says, that rays of truth are present in other religious traditions,” Duffner said.

History of peripheries

This trip was only the latest instance of Pope Francis using his platform and role as a world religious leader to emphasize the Church’s solidarity with the poor and marginalized. In July 2013, he visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he said a Mass for migrants and threw a reef into the water in memory of refugees, many of them Muslims from the war-torn Middle East, who had drowned trying to reach Europe.

In July 2013, the pope walked into a Brazilian favela, a poverty-stricken community often torn by violence. In February 2016, he celebrated a Mass near the U.S.-Mexican border to show support for migrants. A few months later, in April 2016, he brought 12 Muslim refugees from Syria, six of them children, with him to Vatican City after a trip to Greece.

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Though he did not specifically mention the Rohingya in Myanmar, Colecchi, of USCCB, said the pope “could not have been clearer” that the country needs to be more inclusive and respect the rights of all ethnic groups. Colecchi believes the pope’s trip will have positive lasting effects.

“He did not humiliate the government leaders in Myanmar, but he clearly challenged them,” Colecchi said. “I think that will add additional pressure and world attention on the actions of the government in Myanmar, and will in the long term have a very beneficial effect.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.