Pope Francis has been advised by the Burmese Cardinal Charles Maung Bo not to utter the word “Rohingya” on his visit to Myanmar — a term avoided by country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the military generals.
“It is a very contested term, and the military and government and the public would not like him to express it,” Cardinal Bo said in an interview, during which he himself avoided the term, referring only to Muslims who are suffering in Rakhine State.
More than 600,000 people have fled to Bangladesh to set themselves free from a ruthless government-sanctioned campaign of killing, rape and arson. United Nations officials and international human rights groups have described the plight of the Rohingya Muslims as “ethnic cleansing.”
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 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.
He is not the only one who thinks so, it seems.
“Like other people, I’m afraid of what he will say about Rakhine state,” a priest called Father Paul said. “I don’t think he will say anything.”
However, Pope Francis previously voiced support and used the term in February, when he asked people to pray “particularly for our Rohingya brothers and sisters.”
“They have been thrown out of Burma, moved from one place to another because no one wants them. But they are good people, peaceful people,” he said at the time. “They are our brothers and sisters. For years they have suffered, they have been tortured and killed simply because they practice their own traditions, their own Muslim faith.”
In his latest visit, Francis faces a delicate diplomatic task, as the powerful military establishment and a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi do not generalize the Muslims as “Rohingya” among the country’s 135 ethnic groups, claiming they migrated illegally from Bangladesh.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke did not confirm whether Pope Francis would use the word “Rohingya” once again during his trip, adding that it’s “not a prohibited word.”
“Let’s just say it’s very interesting diplomatically,” he told reporters.
On the other hand, human right groups have urged Francis to use the term and make a point during his visit.
“He should use the word Rohingya, and he should use it publicly because the Rohingya have very little left besides their identity,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Part of the dispossession they’ve faced has solidified their identity because when you have very little else to grab onto, that self-identification is very important.”
According to Reese, the pope’s willingness to call out injustice may be dangerous to the country’s Christian minority. Around 700,000 Roman Catholics live in Myanmar, representing little more than 1 percent of the total population.
But as Reese also pointed out, if the pope remains silent about the persecution of the Rohingya, he will lose moral credibility.
Thumbnail/Banner Credits: Reuters, Max Rossi