DHAKA, Bangladesh >> On the eve of his return to Rome, Pope Francis used the word “Rohingya” today, coming face-to-face with some of the persecuted Muslims whose plight had cast a long shadow over his visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Critics had been asking why a pontiff who so often condemned injustice against the downtrodden had stayed silent earlier in the week, when he made his first visit to Myanmar, a country in which Rohingya Muslims have been raped, killed or driven into exile in Bangladesh by a brutal military campaign of repression.
In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, today, the pope listened to the stories, and held the hands, one by one, of 16 survivors of the persecution — 12 men, two women and two young girls — vowing: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
On a stage after a large interfaith gathering for peace, the pope patted men’s shoulders and pressed the forehead of a girl whose parents and brothers had been killed. He bent low to kiss a small child on the head. The enormity of their tragedy seemed to weigh on him.
“In the name of everyone, of those who have persecuted you, of those who have done you harm, above all for the indifference of the world, I ask forgiveness. Forgiveness,” the pope said in emotional and apparently unscripted remarks, as the survivors stood around him. He did not address his own recent silence.
To the large audience of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and others, he stressed that the Rohingya, as all of humanity, were created in the image of God and he vowed to continue helping them “so that their rights become recognized.”
The Rohingya are stateless Muslims from western Myanmar who, according to the United Nations, the United States and many human rights groups, have been the targets of ethnic cleansing. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh, where they live in desperate, sprawling refugee camps in areas like Cox’s Bazar, where the group that met the pope had sought shelter.
Francis had in the past, from the Vatican, denounced the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers,” but during his visit Monday to Thursday in Myanmar, diplomatic considerations and a fear of prompting a military crackdown on the Christian minority had kept the usually outspoken pope from uttering the term Rohingya or directly addressing the humanitarian disaster.
That uncharacteristic silence prompted criticism and frustration from those who had grown accustomed to considering the pope as a moral compass in a world that had gone adrift. The Vatican found itself refuting the notion that the pope had relinquished the moral authority that imbued his office with influence.
But as soon as the pope left Myanmar, where the Vatican hinted that he had raised the issue with the military commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and the country’s de facto leader, tarnished Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, he was more willing to broach the issue.
Remarkably, for a pope who has consistently elevated and championed the human suffering of refugees, some supporters of Francis also thought that he could have done more during his trip.
Others understood the diplomatic minefield he had perhaps foolishly wandered into. They contented themselves with his mere presence, hoping that would be enough to draw attention to the issue.
“He had to be balanced over in Myanmar,” said Rafiqul Islam, a Muslim auto dealer in the audience who has participated in charity missions to bring blankets and clothing to the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar. “But here he can call all the world to please, help this problem. They are butchering us.”
Before the interfaith event began, the Rohingya took their seats on green plastic chairs to the side of a stage and at the foot of a riser where the news media assembled. Reporters clamored, cameras clicked and video was taken as a little girl ate a clementine on her mother’s lap. An older girl — who said she had lost her parents, two brothers, and two uncles in the violence — sat next to them.
Abdul Fyez, 35, stared ahead with sunken eyes, “We have been Rohingya for generations, my father and my grandfather,” he said, adding that the Myanmar military had killed his brother.
Throughout the trip, Francis had been making subtle asides, alluding to principles of democracy, equity and tolerance. For Francis, it seemed, the Rohingya were the endangered whose name he dared not speak. But on Friday night, toward the close of his trip, that all changed when he brought them onto center stage.
“Many of you have told me of the big heart of Bangladesh that welcomed you,” the pope said as they stood around him. “And now I appeal to your big hearts to be capable of granting us the forgiveness that we ask.”