Pope Francis’ Dilemma in Myanmar: Whether to Say ‘Rohingya’


More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, which the pope will visit after Myanmar, where they live in sprawling refugee camps as they await a repatriation deal between the two countries.

The Rohingya are, in short, exactly the sort of persecuted and downtrodden people in the global periphery whose rights Francis has made it his pastoral mission to champion and whose plight he has used his papal platform to elevate.

The Myanmar trip would seem to present the pope an opportunity to reassert his status as the world’s moral compass by condemning the violence against the Rohingya. Many hope he will do just that.

But Cardinal Bo said that Francis had gotten the message. “He understands better now the situation,” Cardinal Bo said.

The situation, as it were, is a political, sectarian and religious minefield that some supporters of Francis worry poses a no-win scenario even for a political operator as deft as he is.

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Roman Catholic nuns during a ceremony in the Irrawaddy region of Myanmar. About 700,000 Catholics live in the country, representing about 1 percent of the total population.

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Ye Aung Thu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The pope “risks either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which listed Myanmar as one of the worst countries in that category, wrote this past week in a column for the Religion News Service.

“I have great admiration for the pope and his abilities, but someone should have talked him out of making this trip,” he wrote.

Father Reese argued that the pope’s usual, and admirable, willingness to call out injustice could put the country’s Christian minority in grave danger. About 700,000 Roman Catholics live in Myanmar, representing little more than 1 percent of the total population. There are also Baptist Christians and Hindus, but the vast majority in the country, about 90 percent, follow Theravada Buddhism, and the campaign against the Rohingya is wildly popular.

On the other hand, Father Reese said of the pope: “If he is silent about the persecution of the Rohingya, he loses moral credibility.”

The Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, said in a briefing this past week that Rohingya was “not a prohibited word,” adding that, while the pope takes the advice of Cardinal Bo seriously, “we’ll see together” whether the pope uses the word.

“Let’s just say it’s very interesting diplomatically,” he said.

Many Buddhists consider the Rohingya, who have lived in Myanmar for generations and were stripped of their citizenship in 1982, trespassers and terrorists. In October, Rohingya militants attacked and killed nine border officials, prompting a crackdown that has shocked rights activists the world over for its cruelty. If the pope appears to take sides with the Rohingya, he risks angering extremist monks who have warned the pope to steer clear.

“There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That’s false,” Ashin Wirathu, the leader of a hard-line Buddhist movement, Ma Ba Tha, told The News Times in August.

The reputational cost of silence on the persecution on the Rohingya is already being paid by Myanmar’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Once the darling of rights activists during her years under house arrest, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in 2015 with the goal of putting Myanmar on the path to stable democracy and settling disputes with the country’s many armed ethnic groups.

But the military maintained control of the national security infrastructure, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have no power, and no voice, to stop the attacks on the Rohingya.

Cardinal Bo, an ally of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s, has argued that she remains the country’s best hope for democracy and that the pope, who is scheduled to meet her on Tuesday in the capital, Naypyidaw, should show his support in the hopes of giving her more leverage to sway the military.

But, according to the Vatican, Cardinal Bo also suggested that Francis meet Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander of Myanmar’s powerful military and the architect of the so-called ethnic cleansing. The meeting on Thursday is intended to make sure the military leader does not feel forgotten, but it also presents the pope’s greatest opportunity to have an impact on the humanitarian situation.

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A Rohingya refugee at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, this month. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, which the pope will also visit.

Credit
Adam Dean for The New York Times

As in his meeting in April with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, the pope has proved reluctant to directly criticize political leaders on their own turf, instead making broader remarks.

“History does not forgive those who talk about equality but then discard those who are different,” he said while standing next to Mr. Sisi.

But when it comes to ethnic cleansing, the pope has been more outspoken. In 2015, for example, he infuriated Turkey by describing the mass killings of Armenians in World War I as “genocide.”

In March, Francis apologized for the participation of priests and nuns and the silence of church leaders in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. That silence was not without precedent.

Pope Pius XII will forever be a figure of controversy, and, for many Catholics, shame, for his calculation that speaking out against the genocide of Jews during World War II would risk the lives of Catholics.

In Myanmar, Francis will seek out meetings with the persecuted. On Tuesday, he is to meet with representatives of religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians and what Mr. Burke, the Vatican spokesman, called a “small group” of Rohingya refugees.

On Thursday, the pope will go to Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have sought safety. Some are to meet with the pope that day in Dhaka, the capital.

But experts in the church are urging the pope to be careful what he calls them.

The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and editor of AsiaNews, an organization based in Rome that closely follows the church in Asia, said the pope’s previous use of the word Rohingya made Christians in Myanmar “very very worried.”

Father Cervellera also said he thought that using the word could play into the hands of Muslim extremists, including Al Qaeda, who he said had started a holy war to save the Rohingya.

“The word is politicized and monopolized by an Islamic idea,” Father Cervellera said, adding that the military was carrying out ethnic cleansing of all the minorities in the region. “But the world only talks about Rohingya,” he said.

The question remains if, and how, the pope will do so.

Having made his case to the pontiff, even Cardinal Bo sought to soften the blow should Francis speak the Rohingya’s name.

“If the pope were to mention it, it wouldn’t mean anything involved in politics,” like extending citizenship, Cardinal Bo said. “He will not interfere with that. He will just say to have concern for the suffering people.”

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