Pope Francis, who recently concluded a trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh has revealed why he did not mention Rohingya Muslims. He did meet with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and mentioned their names during an emotional meeting.
The Rohingya are a stateless Indo-Aryan people from Rakhine State, Myanmar. There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis. Even prior to the crisis, they were considered one of the most persecuted groups in the world. The government considers them illegal refugees from Bangladesh and they aren’t allowed to vote. However, the Bangladeshi government considers them Burmese, effectively rendering them stateless. Given their persecution, thousands have fled the region in boats. Due to violent riots, since 2012, over 110,000 Rohingya left Myanmar and headed to countries like Thailand and Malaysia. The number of refugees increased exponentially in 2015. Thein Sein, the Burmese President from 2011 to 2016 did little to offer relief to Rohingya. The Rohingya Muslims have faced military crackdowns in 1978, 1991–1992, 2012, 2015 and 2016–2017. Over 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the region since August amid reports of violence by the military. Most of them have fled to Bangladesh.
Pope Francis is the 266th and current Pope of the Catholic Church. He recently visited Myanmar on his first official state visit. In his keynote address at the nation’s capital, the most influential Christian in the world evaded using the word ‘Rohingya’ but he preached the importance of peace.
During his visit to Myanmar, the Pope said, “The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect of the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity”. The Pope did make thinly veiled references to Rohingya Muslims when he spoke about the need to "ensure respect for the rights of all who call this land their home".
Experts stated that the Pope did not mention the name in order to make sure he did not incite violence in the region. He also visited Bangladesh after Myanmar. He made a personal visit to meet with Rohingya Muslims living in refugee camps. He explained why he didn’t mention their names in Myanmar noting, “Had I said that word, I would have been slamming the door. What I thought about it was already well known. He added that he mentioned their plight on various occasions from the Vatican.
Human rights organizations and Rohingya themselves had voiced disappointment at Francis' public silence, given he had previously denounced the persecution of "our Rohingya brothers and sisters" at the Vatican. The Pope noted, “I didn't have the pleasure of slamming the door publicly, a denouncement but I had the satisfaction of dialogue." He also further explained his own emotional meeting with Rohingya Muslim refugees. He said, “I wept: I tried to do it in a way that it couldn’t be seen,” he told reporters. “They wept too.”
Some Rohingya refugees have expressed dissatisfaction "He is the leader of the world. He should say the word as we are Rohingya," said Mohammed Ayub, 32, whose 3-year-old son was killed by the Myanmar military. However, others were pleased that the Pope had assured them of his prayers. "He also said he would do whatever he can, and with Allah's help, all my troubles will go away," said refugee Abdul Khoyam. "He asked me to not lose patience."
Our assessment is that as Pope Francis revealed, he had to walk a diplomatic tightrope in order to not offend the sensibilities of those in Myanmar. It was his first visit to the region and it is possible that he did not want to embarrass his host, the de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi or the military leaders. Ultimately his decision was guided by his effort not to incite any further violence in the region.