DHAKA, Bangladesh — After meeting several Rohingya Muslims and hearing their stories in Bangladesh, Pope Francis uttered a moving prayer from the heart, affirming their dignity and asking forgiveness on behalf of all who persecute the Burmese minority.
He also broke the protocol he has maintained so far during his visit to Burma and Bangladesh by publicly calling members of the persecuted minority the “Rohingya” — a controversial term in Burma that until now he has avoided.
“In the name of all who have persecuted you and persecute you, that have done you harm, above all, the world’s indifference, I ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness,” the Pope said Dec. 1.
Speaking in a spontaneous prayer alongside some 18 Rohingya after greeting them individually and hearing brief explanations of their stories, Pope Francis told them that “we are very close to you.”
Although there’s “little we can do because your tragedy is very hard and great,” he told them “we give you space in the heart.”
He explained that according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God created man in his image and likeness. “All of us are in this image, also these brothers and sisters, they too are in the image of God,” he said.
Noting how in the Muslim tradition, it is said that God has took a bit of salt and mixed it with water to create man, Francis said “we all have a little bit of this salt. These brothers and sisters contain the salt of God.”
“We’ll continue to help them, we’ll continue to help them so their rights are recognized.”
“We’ll not close our hearts, not look at the darker side,” he said, because “today the presence of God is also called the Rohingya. Each and everyone of us is his bride.”
Pope Francis spoke at the end of an interreligious encounter in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The event was part of a broader Nov. 27-Dec. 2 visit to south Asia, which included a three-day stop in Burma, and will conclude tomorrow after two days in the Bangladeshi capital.
During the event, the Pope heard testimonies from five leaders representing different religious communities in Bangladesh, including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Anglicans and Catholics. Among the Catholics who spoke were a layman and Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka, who is the first Bangladeshi cardinal, appointed by Francis in 2016.
Also present were 18 members of the Rohingya Muslim community, including a 5-year-old child, who fled persecution in their homeland and are now living in Bangladesh.
Francis greeted them individually at the end of the gathering, listening as they each briefly explained their stories through an interpreter. He offered his brief prayer once he had met and spoken with all of them.
Once the Pope had finished, one of the Rohingya also said a prayer, after which the rest of the interreligious leaders present came up on stage and greeted them one-by-one.
According to sources on the ground, several of the Rohingya were weeping, and Cardinal D’Rozario himself was visibly moved as he embraced them.
The Pope’s meeting with the Rohingya is significant, as their plight has been an underlying theme throughout his visit to both Burma and Bangladesh.
A largely Muslim ethnic group who reside in Burma’s Rakhine State, the Rohingya have faced a sharp increase in state-sponsored violence in their homeland, recently reaching staggering levels that have led the United Nations to declare the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
With an increase in persecution in their home country of Burma, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh, and are living in refugee camps.
Though the Vatican has said the crisis was not the original motive of the visit, the situation has been a constant focal point, with particular attention paid to whether or not the Pope would use the term “Rohingya” on the ground.
Despite widespread use of the word Rohingya in the international community, the term is controversial within Burma. The Burmese government refuses to use the term, and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship since Burma gained independence in 1948.
Because of the touchy nature of the term, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Burma, suggested to the Pope that he refrain from using the word in Burma, arguing that extremists in the area are trying to rouse the population by using the term, making the risk of a new interreligious conflict ever-more present, with Christians in the crossfire.
According to Cardinal Bo, the correct term to use is “Muslims of the Rakhine State,” which the Pope has chosen to use until today.
Speaking to journalists present at the interreligious encounter before meeting the Pope, Mohammed Ayub, 32, a Rohingya Muslim whose 3-year-old son was killed by the Burmese military, said, “the Pope should say Rohingya. He is the leader of the world. He should say the word, as we are Rohingya.”
Similarly, Abdul Fyez, 35, who had a brother killed by the Burmese army, agreed that Francis ought to use the word, saying “we have been Rohingya for generations, my father and my grandfather.”
Though the Pope’s reasons for choosing to say the word today are unknown, it may have been in part the result of meeting the Rohingya personally and hearing their stories.
It’s also not the first time he’s chosen to say a controversial term. During his 2015 visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan, Francis called the 1915 massacre of some 1.5 million Armenian Christians a “genocide,” despite the risk of political throwback from Turkey, which has argued that the numbers are exaggerated and rejects the allegation that it constituted genocide.