Pope Francis explains why he did not use the word ‘Rohingya’ in Myanmar
Pope Francis revealed that he cried with the Rohingya when he met 16 of them in Dacca on Friday. On his flight back to Rome, Francis said, “The conscience of humanity today has been formed around the Rohyinga, [so much so] that the United Nations has said that the Rohyinga are today the religious, ethnic minority that is the most persecuted in the world.”
The pope spoke about how he sought to address the persecution of the Rohingya during his visit and how he sees the situation in Myanmar unfolding in the future. He also said he hopes to visit India next year but voiced regret that there are no plans for a China visit. The pope did reveal that there will be another meeting of the joint China-Holy See commission in Beijing in the next week.
During his visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Francis spoke in private with the country’s top political and religious leaders, and also with military leaders in Myanmar. Asked about the situation in Myanmar, and in particular that of the Rohingya, who suffered military attacks on their villages in Rakhine state in August, Francis replied, “It will not be easy to go forward in a consultative development, and it will not be easy for the one who wants to go back.”
Rakhine State is rich in precious stones and natural resources, and many believe that some “interests,” especially China, want control of these resources, and that Myanmar’s military are facilitating this access.
He also noted, “Someone said, I don’t know who, that Rakhine state is very rich in precious stones and that maybe there are interests that want this land without people so they can work on it.”
It was a significant observation. Rakhine State is rich in precious stones and natural resources, and many believe that some “interests,” especially China, want control of these resources, and that Myanmar’s military are facilitating this access.
Francis said of the conflict, “One must dialog, one step and then another step, maybe a half step backwards, another step forward,” and he said progress must be made through negotiation, “never with punishment, never with war.” He speculated that “a turning point” has been reached in the Rohingya situation. “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” Pope Francis had declared in Dhaka on Friday after meeting 16 Rohingya refugees.
Asked why he met with the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, before meeting the president and Aung San Suu Kyi, the de-facto leader of the country, Francis explained, “the general asked to speak [with me] and I received him. I never shut the door. Who wants to talk comes…one can’t lose anything by talking…. It was a good conversation. I can’t talk about it because it was private, but I did not negotiate the truth. I made sure he understood that the old ways are not viable nowadays. It was a good meeting, civilized, he received the message.” The pope also said that he had planned to meet with the general on Nov 30 but moved the meeting up by three days because the general had plans to travel to China. “When these things happen…if I can move the appointment, I will.”
When it was suggested that the general may have wanted to meet him first to show who has the power in Myanmar, Francis responded, “Whether there were other intentions [behind the change] I don’t know.… I think dialogue is more important than the suspicion that you are suggesting.”
Asked why he waited until yesterday to use the word Rohingya during his weeklong trip to Asia, Francis explained, “I try to say things step by step and listen to the answers until the message arrives. For example in daily life, an adolescent boy or girl can say what they think, but slamming the door in the face of the other, the message doesn’t arrive—it closes.”
The pope added that if he “had said that word” during his formal speech on Tuesday in Nay Pyi Taw, the administrative capital of Myanmar, “I would have been slamming the door.”
The pope added that if he “had said that word” during his formal speech on Tuesday in Nay Pyi Taw, the administrative capital of Myanmar, “I would have been slamming the door.” Instead, he said, “I was very very satisfied by the meetings I was able to have…. I had the satisfaction of dialogue, of letting the other speak, saying what I had to say and in this way, the message arrived.”
The Myanmar trip culminated in yesterday’s meeting with the Rohingya refugees, which appeared on the front pages of all the local newspapers today. That meeting occurred at the the archbishop of Dhaka’s house, as part of an ecumenical and interreligious meeting with Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other Christian religious leaders.
The pope said he had wanted to visit the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh,but “that wasn’t possible” for various reasons, including time and distance. “I knew I would meet the Rohingya, I didn’t know where or how, but it was a condition of the trip for me, and they prepared ways. After many dealings back and forth, with the government, with Caritas, the government allowed this trip of those [Rohingya] who came yesterday.”
Francis then described how the meeting organizers wanted the refugees to leave the stage after they had greeted him, and how he “got angry” and insisted that they be allowed to stay. He recalled that after he listened to their stories, he felt he had to speak and ask forgiveness of them, and that as he listened to them, “I was crying. I tried to hide it. They cried too.” He then invited the other religious leaders to greet them, and at the end he asked one of the Rohingya to say a prayer. At that point, he said, “I felt the message had arrived.”
Francis again praised Bangladesh for welcoming these refugees and giving an example to the world. “We have to be grateful”, he said, because though Bangladesh is “a poor and small country, they received 700,000! I think of countries that close their doors.”