Pope advised not to use ‘Rohingya’ during Myanmar visit

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Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, has advised Pope Francis not to utter the word “Rohingya,” while in Myanmar.

However, human rights campaigners have urged the Pope to use the word Rohingya publicly.

Responding to the first reports of Rohingya Muslims fleeing an army-led crackdown in Myanmar in August, Pope Francis called on his flock to pray for “our Rohingya brethren.”

“Let all of us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of goodwill to help them, who shall give them their full rights,” Francis told a gathering of pilgrims at Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, during the Ordinary Public Consistory at St. Peter’s Basilica © Getty Images

As the pope begins his first official visit to Myanmar on Monday, the plight of the Rohingyas has developed into a significant global humanitarian crises.

More than 600,000 Rohingyas, who are not recognised as one of Myanmar’s officially listed 135 races, have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution by Myanmar’s security forces.

Catholic leaders wished the Pope would highlight the country’s progress and preach reconciliation with an array of ethnic minorities agitating for greater rights in Myanmar, and not raise the Rohingya issue specifically

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said during his recent visit to Myanmar that “no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities” carried out by security forces and Buddhist vigilantes against the Rohingyas.

Pope Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, has spoken out for the downtrodden and in support of interfaith dialogue, and repeatedly expressed concern for the Rohingya.

In a video message, Francis said, “I wish to visit the nation in a spirit of respect and encouragement for every effort to build harmony and cooperation in the service of the common good.”

“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 have faced has solidified their identity because when you have very little else to grab onto, that self-identification is very important.”

Catholic leaders fear that if Francis speaks out too strongly on an explosive issue like the Rohingya, it will provoke a backlash. They’re telling Francis: ‘Don’t go there. It will just bring further complications,’ The pope comes for a few days, but they are there permanently

Francis will be in Myanmar for three days followed by two days in Bangladesh, where the Vatican said he would meet with a small group of Rohingya refugees in the capital, Dhaka.

The Vatican announced the first apostolic visit to Myanmar — where an estimated 700,000 Roman Catholics make up 1.5 percent of the population.

Local Catholic leaders wished the Pope would highlight the country’s progress and preach reconciliation with an array of ethnic minorities agitating for greater rights in Myanmar, and not raise the Rohingya issue specifically.

“I think he will not single out any one particular group, but in general, he might urge groups representing the different races and the government to continue to work for peace,” said Paul Zinghtung Grawng, the Archbishop Emeritus in Myanmar’s second-largest city Mandalay.

“It’s not to point out the defects or what is lacking in the country but rather to encourage and affirm the positive steps that are being taken at the moment.”

Some say Pope Francis should not inflame religious tensions in Myanmar, which has witnessed a surge in Buddhist fundamentalism in recent years.

“In terms of perception, it is really only in the first couple of generations of becoming a church of locals and nationals,” said Michael Kelly, executive director of the Union of Catholic Asian News, an independent news organisation based in Bangkok.

Myanmar’s Catholic leaders fear that if Francis speaks out too strongly on an explosive issue like the Rohingya, it will provoke a backlash.

“They’re telling Francis: ‘Don’t go there. It will just bring further complications,’ ” Kelly said. “The pope comes for a few days, but they are there permanently.”

Aaron Connelly, research fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute, told CNN there was little chance the Pope’s visit to Myanmar was going to be a “generic Papal visit.”

“Clearly the thing that motivated this visit was always a desire to talk about the Rohingya,” he said.

“The question is … is he going to do that in a way which is less confrontational and engages?” Connelly added. “Or is he going to say, this is outrageous, these people have a right to be in Myanmar?” ■

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