Pope Francis disappoints Rohingya by failing to condemn persecution

The pope is nearing end of four-day visit to Myanmar in which he has not publicly spoken about plight of the Rohingya.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Pope Francis disappoints Rohingya by failing to condemn persecution” was written by Poppy McPherson in Yangon, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 29th November 2017 13.43 UTC

As the crowds trickled out of the Yangon sports ground where Pope Francis delivered his first public mass before tens of thousands of people, Khin Maung Myint, a Rohingya activist, sat on the sidelines. He was disappointed. Not in Francis, but in the advisers who appear to have dissuaded the pontiff from bringing up the plight of the Rohingya people.

“Rohingya are not the ones who lost their dignity, but the people who silence the pope’s expression,” he said. “Those who pushed the pope not to use the word Rohingya, they are the ones who lost their dignity.”

Francis is nearing the end of a four-day visit to Myanmar, previously known as Burma, in which he has not publicly spoken about the persecuted Muslim minority, more than 620,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh in recent months, escaping what western leaders are calling ethnic cleansing.

Among the guests in the VIP section, where a gazebo provided protection from the hot Myanmar sun, was Aye Ne Win, the grandson of the country’s first dictator who attracted public derision recently after he dressed up as the pope for Halloween. Beside him, in a black veil, sat a beauty queen who has described the Rohingya in a YouTube video as “harbingers of terror and violence”.

In his homily on Wednesday, the pope talked about the need for forgiveness and ignoring the desire for revenge, but declined to reference violence meted out against the Rohingya, a campaign allegedly marked by gang-rape, massacres and arson.

“We think that healing can come from anger or revenge,” Francis said, speaking of the many “wounded” people in Myanmar. “Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus,” he said.

It was his second public address in Myanmar, coming after he shared a stage with the state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Tuesday, telling an audience of diplomats and journalists that all of Myanmar’s religious and minority ethnic groups – “none excluded” – should be respected.

Pope Francis in Yangon
Pope Francis in Yangon, where he failed to publicly mention the plight of the Rohingya.
Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Both speeches have fallen short of what many expected from the pope, whose advocacy for refugees has been a benchmark of his papacy. He has previously referred to “our Rohingya brothers and sisters”.

At a press conference in Yangon on Wednesday night, papal spokesman Greg Burke said the moral authority of the Pope “still stands”.

“You can criticise what is said or not said but the Pope is not going to lose any moral authority on this question here,” he said.

The Rohingya have suffered decades of persecution in Myanmar, where their freedoms have been slowly eroded and tens of thousands are confined to internment camps. They are widely deemed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and labelled “Bengalis”.

“For years the international community has towed the government of Myanmar’s line, refusing to say ‘Rohingya’ for fear of doing harm,” said David Baulk, a Myanmar researcher for Fortify Rights. “There should be nothing controversial about the pope identifying people by the name they want.”

Whether or not the pope should address the crisis has been a matter of debate within the Vatican since the visit was announced, according to a source familiar with discussions. “There are probably a mix of voices in the Vatican,” they said. “Those who are old school diplomats for whom caution is always their watchword and others who are a bit more bold.”

The most vocal was until recently Charles Maung Bo, Myanmar’s first cardinal, a powerful orator who has fiercely defended the Rohingya and condemned “merchants of hatred” in the form of Buddhist ultranationalists who have sanctioned the violence.

Before this week’s visit he urged the pope not to use the word, though he has made it clear he would have been happy with a compromise phrase, according to the source.

“I think one factor in this was almost certainly pressure from within the church on him because he has been so outspoken until now and I think there would have been an enormous amount of pressure from other bishops,” the source said.

The Rohingya are Muslims who live in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. They are often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority”.

Nearly all of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya live in the western coastal state of Rakhine. The government does not recognise them as citizens, effectively rendering them stateless.

In 2012, deadly clashes with Buddhists in Rakhine caused 140,000 Rohingya to flee their homes. Many have since paid people smugglers to take them on dangerous sea voyages to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, where they are often exploited.

Extremist nationalist movements insist the group are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although the Rohingya say they are native to Rakhine state.

Rights groups accuse Myanmar authorities of ethnic cleansing, systematically forcing Rohingya from the country through violence and persecution, a charge the government has denied.


At the press conference on Wednesday night, the split between the bishops was apparent, with one saying there was a lack of “reliable evidence” of atrocities and was not sure what was going on because he had not seen it himself.

The silence is likely to appease many Catholics in the country who either share prejudices against the Rohingya or are afraid of a nationalist backlash against the 650,000-strong Catholic community in Myanmar.

Francis is scheduled to fly to Dhaka in Bangladesh where he will meet Rohingya refugees on Thursday. But for some in Myanmar, the leader of the church has a moral obligation not to leave the country without commenting on its most pressing crisis.

After the mass, Father Thomas, a Yangon priest, said he hoped the pope brought the matter up in closed-door meetings this week with the army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

“This is the main issue in Burma,” he said.

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