In August, responding to the first reports of Rohingya Muslims fleeing an army-led crackdown in Myanmar, 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.
As the pope begins an official visit to Myanmar on Monday, the Rohingyas’ plight has spiraled into one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises. More than 600,000 people have fled to Bangladesh to escape a systematic campaign of killing, rape and arson that United Nations officials and international human rights groups have described as ethnic cleansing.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed that assessment Wednesday following an official visit to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, saying that “no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities” carried out by security forces and Buddhist vigilantes against the Rohingya.
Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, has portrayed himself as a champion of the downtrodden and of interfaith dialogue, and has repeatedly voiced concern for the Rohingya. He faces perhaps the most delicate diplomatic task of his four-year papacy in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar, where the powerful military establishment and a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi refuse to list the Rohingya among the country’s 135 ethnic groups, claiming that they migrated illegally from Bangladesh.
While in Myanmar, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the archbishop of the largest city, Yangon, has advised the pope not to utter the word “Rohingya,” a term that Suu Kyi and the generals do not recognize.
But human rights groups are urging Francis — both in his public sermons and private meetings with Suu Kyi and the commander of the military, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing — to use the term to show solidarity with a group that Myanmar has denied citizenship and methodically stripped of basic rights, including the freedom to move, work and marry.
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.”
Before the military crackdown, an estimated 1 million Rohingya lived in the western state of Rakhine, many confined to displacement camps patrolled by security forces.
“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.”
Francis will follow his three-day visit to Myanmar with 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 slightly more than 1% of the population — just as the extent of the military campaign against the Rohingya was becoming clear. The trip initially was intended to endorse the country’s fitful transition to democracy after a half-century of military rule.
Despite the election of the first civilian government in 2015, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, the army retains total control over security matters and wields tremendous influence behind the scenes. An advisor to Suu Kyi who sought to curtail the military’s powers was shot dead this year in mysterious circumstances.
Suu Kyi, who became an icon for leading the opposition to military rule, has sided with the army against the Rohingya, damaging her image globally. But many Myanmar citizens believe the army crackdown was justified after a Rohingya militant group carried out deadly attacks against security forces.
Local Catholic leaders said they hoped the pope would highlight the country’s progress and preach reconciliation with an array of ethnic minorities agitating for greater rights in Myanmar, not only the Rohingya.
“I think he will not single out any one particular group, but in general, he might say that for all the different races, the government should continue to make peace with them as you are trying to do now,” said Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng, the archbishop emeritus in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city.
“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.”
It is not the first time that Francis — who has cultivated a reputation as a straight talker, eschewing much of the ornamentation of his office — has waded directly into difficult domestic politics. In a visit to Colombia in September, he carefully endorsed a controversial peace deal with leftist rebels, urging the country to come together in the name of peace.
Experts said Francis would take care not to inflame tensions in Myanmar, which still places severe restrictions on religious freedom, including building new houses of worship for non-Buddhists. Catholicism — brought by Portuguese traders from India more than five centuries ago — long struggled to gain a foothold because of the widespread view that it was a colonial religion.
“In terms of perception, it’s 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 organization based in Bangkok.
Myanmar’s Catholic leaders fear that if Francis speaks out too strongly on such an incendiary issue as the Rohingya, it will provoke a backlash that will set back efforts by ethnic and religious groups to claw back broader minority rights.