Updated at 4:38 p.m. ET on 2017-11-30
In a historic visit to Bangladesh, Pope Francis on Thursday praised the South Asian nation for giving shelter to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and he called on the international community to help resolve the humanitarian crisis.
Addressing officials, lawmakers and diplomats in Dhaka during his first day in the Bangladeshi capital, the pontiff underscored the tradition of inter-religious harmony in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. In recent years, the country has seen a major terrorist attack and the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism.
The founders of Bangladesh “envisioned a modern, pluralistic and inclusive society in which every person and community could live in freedom, peace and security, with respect for the innate dignity and equal rights of all,” the Pope said in a speech delivered in Italian at the Bangladeshi presidential palace.
“The future of this young democracy and the health of its political life are essentially linked to fidelity to that founding vision,” the 80-year-old Argentinian pontiff said after visiting a museum honoring the country’s founding president and laying a wreath at a memorial honoring those who died in the 1971 war of independence, which birthed Bangladesh.
Francis, the second pontiff to visit the nation of Bangladesh, landed in Dhaka in the mid- afternoon after spending the earlier part of the week in neighboring Myanmar. His was the first visit by a pope to that Buddhist-majority nation.
“It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis, not only by working to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people, but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs,” he told his audience at the presidential palace.
He said he looked forward to a meeting with ecumenical and inter-religious leaders at the archbishop’s house in Dhaka on Friday.
“Together we will pray for peace and reaffirm our commitment to work for peace. Bangladesh is known for the harmony that has traditionally existed between the followers of the various religions,” the head of the Roman Catholic church said.
“In a world where religion is often – scandalously – misused to foment division, such a witness to its reconciling and unifying power is all the more necessary.”
‘Refugees from Rakhine’
But as he did during his stay in Myanmar, Francis refrained from using the term “Rohingya” at the start of his three-day visit to Bangladesh.
During his remarks Thursday, he described them only as “refugees from Rakhine state,” but he acknowledged the “toll of human suffering” they had endured.
He refrained, too, from describing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that had forced more than 620,000 Rohingya to flee to southeastern Bangladesh since late August as “ethnic cleansing” – as the United Nations and United States had done in recent weeks.
People in Myanmar, whose government has denied Rohingya citizenship, refer to Rohingya Muslims as “Bengalis” or illegal migrants from Bangladesh. But across the border in Bangladesh, the government also refuses to acknowledge them as “Rohingya,” referring to them instead as “displaced persons from Myanmar.”
At the Bangabhaban, the president’s palace in Dhaka, the Pope lauded Bangladesh for displaying “the spirit of generosity and solidarity” through its humanitarian outreach to the refugees by giving them temporary shelter and basic necessities.
“This has been done at no little sacrifice. It has also been done before the eyes of the whole world,” he said. “None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps.”
During his remarks welcoming Pope Francis to his country, Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid accused Myanmar’s military and security forces of committing “ruthless atrocities,” which ignited the most recent exodus of Rohingya refugees from their ancestral homes in Rakhine state.
They had fled a military crackdown that followed attacks mounted on police and army posts in Rakhine by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents on Aug. 25.
Hamid said Bangladesh had welcomed the Rohingya refugees “with an open heart,” but now there was a “shared responsibility to ensure their safe, sound and dignified return to their homeland in Myanmar.
Growing religious fervor
On Friday, Pope Francis is also scheduled to celebrate mass with about 80,000 Catholic faithful at a local park and meet with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Holy See’s embassy in Dhaka. He is expected to meet with a group of Rohingya refugees as well, before returning to Rome on Saturday afternoon.
It is the first papal visit to Bangladesh – home to about 400,000 Catholics – since Pope John Paul II in 1986, and only the second in the country’s 46-year history. Pope Paul VI visited Bangladesh, when it was known as East Pakistan, a province of Pakistan, in 1970.
Lately, majority Sunni-Muslim Bangladesh has seen growing religious conservatism and a series of deadly attacks by Islamic extremists on secular writers, minorities and foreigners.
“We believe that inter-faith dialogue, at all levels of the society, is important to combat such extremist trends,” he said. “We denounce this extremism, in all its forms and manifestations.” Hamid said in his speech.
The country’s Catholic community is tiny, making up about 0.2 percent of the population of about 163 million, but its members have also been targeted by Muslim extremists.
Just days before the Pope’s arrival, a Catholic priest, Walter William Rosario, went missing in northwestern Natore district, according to a Christian association. The circumstances of the priest’s disappearance remain mysterious and it is unclear whether he may have fallen victim to extremists.
In July 2016, the nation was rocked by a terrorist attack in which gunmen took over an upscale café in Dhaka, leaving 29 people dead, including nine Italians and the five attackers. The extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility.