Pope asks Rohingya for forgiveness in first public mention of stateless Muslim group during Asia trip
It came after his Myanmar leg, where he avoided using the term to refer to the ethnic group, because it is seen as incendiary to some
Pope Francis on Friday used the word “Rohingya” for the first time during his current trip to Asia to refer to refugees who have fled in large numbers from violence in Myanmar.
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” he said in an improvised remark after meeting 16 refugees brought to the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka from their camps in Cox’s Bazar near the border with Myanmar.
“In the name of all of those who have persecuted you, hurt you, I ask forgiveness. I appeal to your large hearts to give us the forgiveness that we are asking,” Francis added.
More than 625,000 Rohingya Muslims have run away to Bangladesh since late August following a crackdown by the Myanmar military in response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants. Most Rohingya are stateless and seen as illegal immigrants by Buddhist majority Myanmar.
The pope looked sombre as each member of the group, which included 12 men and four women, including two young girls, told him their stories through interpreters at the end of the gathering.
On the first leg of his current trip, in Myanmar, he did not use the word Rohingya to describe the refugees.
His comments to the Rohingya came after Francis led a giant open-air mass in Dhaka. Around 100,000 Bangladeshi Catholics crammed into a park in central Dhaka, cheering and chanting “viva il papa” (“long live the pope”) as Francis was driven through the crowd in a partly open Popemobile made specially for the occasion.
Soon after arriving from neighbouring Myanmar late on Thursday he urged the world to take “decisive measures” to resolve the crisis that has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing ethnic unrest across the border into overstretched camps in Bangladesh.
During his time in Myanmar, he avoided using the term “Rohingya”, seen as incendiary to some in the Buddhist-majority country who deny they are a distinct ethnic group.
Security was tight for Friday’s mass, which follows a rise in attacks on religious minorities in Bangladesh by Islamist extremists.
Mainly-Muslim Bangladesh has a tiny Christian population but they turned out in large numbers for Friday’s service, many having queued for hours to get into the park where some 4,000 police and security forces had been deployed.
“I feel like I am blessed to join the Pope’s prayers,” said 60-year-old widow Pronita Mra, who had travelled from her village in northeastern Bangladesh.
“I’ll pray for my late husband and parents so that they go to heaven. I hope the Pope will pray for peace and harmony among all communities in Bangladesh.”
Tapan Martin, 42 and from Dhaka, said he hoped the pope’s prayers would help the Rohingya refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh in their hundreds of thousands since a crackdown by the Myanmar military that began in August.
“We have come to see our great leader. We hope he can help our poor country as well as the Rohingya who have come here,” he said.
Francis has praised Bangladesh for giving refuge to the Rohingya who have flooded in, bringing stories of horrific abuse at the hands of the Myanmar military and local Buddhist mobs, including rape, arson and murder.
He called on the world to offer “immediate material assistance” to Bangladesh, an already overcrowded country where one in four lives below the poverty line, to address their “urgent human needs”.
Although the influx has slowed, hundreds of Rohingya refugees are still crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar every day, according to the United Nations.
Francis will also meet Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders during his three days in the country.
His visit comes days after the disappearance of a Catholic priest in the same village where suspected Islamist extremists hacked a Catholic grocer to death last year.
Since 2015 at least three Christians, including two converts from Islam, have been hacked to death in attacks blamed on Islamist militants.
Christians make up less than 0.5 per cent of Bangladesh’s population of 160 million and community leaders say some have left as it becomes more difficult to practise their faith openly.
Reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse