Pope Francis has demanded respect for all ethnic groups during a public Mass and meeting with Myanmar’s embattled State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi but did not yield to international pressure and say “Rohingya”.
Church leaders reportedly advised him that saying “Rohingya” would only aggravate the situation and put the tiny Catholic minority at risk.
Members of the community are commonly called “Bengalis” in Myanmar, implying they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, despite living in Rakhine State for generations.
The use of the word Rohingya becomes a focus of attention in Myanmar, while the mass murder, displacement and rape inflicted by the military is almost entirely ignored by the domestic media.
Today (Wednesday) he called on the divided country to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the hurt they have endured, preaching a message of forgiveness to a huge crowd in his first public Mass.
The authorities estimated a crowd of around 150,000 filled Yangon’s Kyaikkasan park for the religious service, but other estimates were far higher.
Francis, 80, also toured the park in his open-sided “popemobile”, waving to the worshippers.
Large numbers from predominantly Christian Kachin State travelled south wearing traditional dress.
Francis has said the principal reason for his visit was to preach to the Catholic community, which numbers around 660,000, slightly more than 1 per cent of the 52 million population.
But his trip has been overshadowed by military attacks on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State on the Bangladesh border.
The pope’s unwillingness to use the word Rohingya has disappointed rights groups and members of the subjugated community.
“We thought that the pope was going to mention the suffering of Rohingya people, but now he cannot even use the name Rohingya and it’s totally unacceptable,” Kyaw Naing, a 53-year-old Rohingya man who is a confined to a camp outside the Rakhine capital, told Associated Press. “We are very sad that our identity cannot even be revealed.”
The pontiff used his speech before parliamentarians and diplomats to urge healing from numerous conflicts “that have lasted all too long and created deep divisions.”
“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nationbuilding,” he said beside Suu Kyi at the presidential palace in Nay Pyi Taw.
Suu Kyi’s international reputation has nosedived over her reaction to a military crackdown, which has seen more than 620,000 Rohingyas flee to Bangladesh.
“The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity,” the pope told the event.
Pope Francis arrives in Myanmar. Picture credit: YouTube