The Rohingya are stateless Muslims from western Myanmar who, according to the United Nations, the United States and many human rights groups, have been the targets of ethnic cleansing. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh, where they live in desperate, sprawling refugee camps in areas like Cox’s Bazar, where the group that met the pope had earlier sought shelter.
Francis had in the past, from the Vatican, denounced the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers,” but during his visit Monday to Thursday in Myanmar, diplomatic considerations and a fear of prompting a military crackdown on the Christian minority had kept the usually outspoken pope from uttering the term Rohingya or directly addressing the humanitarian disaster.
That uncharacteristic silence prompted criticism and frustration from those who had grown accustomed to considering the pope as a moral compass in a world that had gone adrift. The Vatican found itself refuting the notion that the pope had relinquished the moral authority that imbued his office with influence.
But as soon as the pope left Myanmar, where the Vatican hinted that he had raised the issue with the military commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and the country’s de facto leader, the tarnished Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he was more willing to broach the issue.
On Thursday night, at an event with Bangladesh’s president, he crept up to the word Rohingya, talking about Rakhine State where massacres, systematic rape and burning of villages have occurred.
But through much of Friday, he focused on his own small church in Bangladesh, with Roman Catholics numbering less than 400,000 in a densely populated, majority Muslim country of 160 million. In the morning, he celebrated Mass during which he ordained new priests and then met with church leaders, complimenting them on their attention to the poor.
“Especially in light of the present refugee crisis, we see how much more needs to be done,” he said.
Remarkably, for a pope who has consistently elevated and championed the human suffering of refugees, some supporters of Francis also thought that he could have done more during his trip.
Others understood the diplomatic minefield he had perhaps foolishly wandered into. They contented themselves with his mere presence, hoping that would be enough to draw attention to the issue.
“He had to be balanced over in Myanmar,” said Rafiqul Islam, a Muslim autodealer in the audience who has participated in charity missions to bring blankets and clothing to the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar. “But here he can call all the world to please, help this problem. They are butchering us.”
Before the interfaith event began, the Rohingya took their seats on green plastic chairs to the side of a stage and at the foot of a riser where the news media assembled. Reporters clamored, cameras clicked and video was taken as a little girl ate a clementine on her mother’s lap. An older girl — who said she had lost her parents, two brothers, and two uncles in the violence — sat next to them.
Abdul Fyez, 35, stared ahead with sunken eyes, “We have been Rohingya for generations, my father and my grandfather,” he said, adding that the Myanmar military had killed his brother.
Mohammed Ayub, 32, said the Myanmar military killed his three-year-old son when they attacked his village in August. “The pope should say Rohingya. He is the leader of the world,” Mr. Ayub said.
Moments later, the pope was brought by rickshaw into the tented garden of the archbishop’s residence and saluted the large crowd seated in rows on the lawn. Many of them wore the traditional dress of their Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian faiths.
“May our meeting this afternoon be a clear sign of the efforts of the leaders and followers of the religions present in this country to live together in mutual respect and good will,” the pope said, adding that he hoped that the spirit of unity would serve as “a subtle yet firm rebuke to those who would seek to foment division, hatred and violence in the name of religion.”
Throughout the trip, Francis had been making subtle asides, alluding to principles of democracy, equity and tolerance. For Francis, it seemed, the Rohingya were the endangered whose name he dared not speak. But on Friday night, toward the close of his trip, that all changed when he brought them onto center stage.
“Many of you have told me of the big heart of Bangladesh that welcomed you,” the pope said as they stood around him. “And now I appeal to your big hearts to be capable of granting us the forgiveness that we ask.”