PONTIFF SEEKS ‘FORGIVENESS’ FOR TRAGEDY
POPE FRANCIS wrapped up his Asia tour last Saturday (2) after meeting Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in a gesture of solidarity with the Muslim minority fleeing violence in Myanmar.
The Catholic leader flew out of Dhaka after visiting a hospital run by the order of Mother Theresa and addressing thousands of students on the final day of a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar that has been dominated by the plight of the Rohingya.
Pope Francis is known for championing the rights of refugees and has repeatedly expressed support for the long-suffering Rohingya, describing them as his “brothers and sisters”.
However, the usually forthright pontiff walked a diplomatic tightrope during his four days in Myanmar – the first papal visit to the country – avoiding any direct reference to the Rohingya in public while appealing to Buddhist leaders to overcome “prejudice and hatred”.
In Bangladesh, he addressed the issue head-on, meeting a group of Rohingya refugees from the squalid camps in southern Bangladesh in an emotional encounter in Dhaka.
Among them was a 12-year-old girl who told him she had lost all her family in an army attack on her village before fleeing across the border earlier this year.
“Your tragedy is very hard, very great, but it has a place in our hearts,” he told them.
“In the name of all those who have persecuted you, who have harmed you, in the face of the world’s indifference, I ask for your forgiveness.”
However, he did not visit the refugee camps, where only a handful were aware that one of the world’s most high-profile leaders was championing their cause just 300 miles (around 500 kilometres) away.
The pope referred to the refugees as Rohingya, using the term for the first time on the tour after the archbishop of Yangon advised him that doing so in Myanmar could inflame tensions and endanger Christians.
The word is politically sensitive in the mainly Buddhist country because many there do not consider the Rohingya a distinct ethnic group, regarding them instead as interlopers from Bangladesh.
Later in a speech to an audience of around 7,000 young Catholics, Muslims and followers of other religions, the pope spoke about welcoming and accepting those who “act and think differently than ourselves”.
“When a people, a religion or a society turns into a ‘little world’, they lose the best that they have and plunge into a self-righteous mentality of ‘I am good and you are bad’,” Francis said at the Notre Dame College, founded by Catholic priests.
During his tour the pope led open-air masses in Bangladesh and Myanmar, which both have small Christian populations.
He paid tribute to the works of Catholic workers in Bangladesh, where schools and clinics run by the church provide a lifeline for poor communities.
Mother Teresa, who started the Missionaries of Charity to serve “the poorest of the poor,” opened the Dhaka home in the early 1970s to look after Bengali women who became pregnant as a result of rape by Pakistani soldiers during the war of independence. (AFP, Reuters)