One by one, the Rohingya refugees lined up Friday at the archbishop’s house in Dhaka to meet Pope Francis, but it was the world’s most influential religious figure who asked them to forgive what he called “the world’s indifference” over their people’s persecution and statelessness.
After avoiding the sensitive term in Myanmar and during the start of his trip to neighboring Bangladesh the previous day, the pontiff uttered the word “Rohingya” for the first time here following his emotional but brief encounter with the 16 refugees. The head of the Catholic Church also prayed with these Rohingya Muslims and members of other faiths.
“In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, of those who’ve done you wrong, above all, the world’s indifference, I ask you for forgiveness,” Francis told the refugees during an interfaith gathering on the second day of his three-day trip to Bangladesh. “I now appeal to your big heart, that you’re able to grant us the forgiveness we seek.”
The pontiff spoke those words as he closed an inter-religious prayer for peace in the garden of the archbishop’s house, where he met with the smattering of Rohingya, made up of 12 men, two girls and two women representing three families.
Their group was brought to the Bangladeshi capital from refugee camps in the southeast for a chance to meet Pope Francis. The 16 were among a wave of 625,000 Rohingya who had escaped an explosion of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state since late August.
Some of the refugees broke down in tears as they recalled horrors they had experienced or witnessed as they fled to Bangladesh from their homes and villages in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, such as alleged killings of relatives, the rapes of women and other atrocities.
With the help of three interpreters, the pope listened and spoke to the Rohingya individually. Francis held their hands, patted each of them on the head and was visibly moved by what they were telling him.
“Let’s not close our hearts, let’s not look to the other side, the presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” Francis said.
‘We want our citizenship’
Before landing in Dhaka on Thursday, Francis had urged Myanmar authorities to overcome their “prejudice and hatred.” But, during his stay in Myanmar, he refrained from publicly using the term “Rohingya,” who are viewed by the Burmese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Officials in Myanmar refer to the Rohingya disparagingly as “Bengalis.”
The pope’s decision to decline using the word “Rohingya” was seen as a concession to that country’s Catholic minority, which had expressed concern that the term might put them at risk by antagonizing the Myanmar authorities.
And across the frontier that separates the two nations, Bangladeshi government officials have refused to call them “Rohingya,” choosing instead to refer to them as “displaced persons from Myanmar.”
Among those Rohingya who met the pope in Dhaka on Friday was Mohammed Nurullah, who spoke to BenarNews afterwards.
“Meeting a senior religious leader made us optimistic about our future in Myanmar,” he said. “We made three demands to him: please ensure our citizenship, ensure our safety and security, and ensure the trial of the perpetrators who killed our people, tortured and raped our women.”
Nurullah said he was from Buthidaung. It was one of 288 Myanmar villages identified through satellite images in October by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as having been burned, after Burmese officials had launched “clearance operations” in response to attacks on Aug. 25 by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents.
“He told us that your problems will be solved,” Nurullah said. “God will solve our problems.”
Khairul Amin, another refugee who met the pope, said Rohingya deserved Myanmar citizenship.
“We have been living in Arakan for generations,” he said, referring to the old name of Rakhine state. “But we are called illegal Bengalis. We want our citizenship.”
Rohingya refugees, who fled to southeastern Bangladesh in two waves since late last year, are not recognized as one of the official ethnic groups in Myanmar, which has denied the Muslim group citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless.
Apart from the 700,000 or so who fled to Bangladesh since October 2016, hundreds of thousands more who escaped earlier spasms of violence in Rakhine are also sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh.
After meeting with the refugees, Francis told the leaders of Bangladesh’s various religious congregations – Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist – that they should help the Rohingya “so that their rights can be acknowledged or recognized.”
“We will not close our hearts,” the pontiff said. “All of us want peace, and it is our desire to establish peace where there is evil. … We want to make the world to see what this individualism makes to these brothers and sisters.”
Swapping Pope mobile for a rickshaw
Tight security blanketed the area around the archbishop’s house as the Bangladeshi army, backed by hundreds of police officers, guarded the venue for Friday’s interfaith meeting.
Thousands of people from different religious backgrounds gathered outside the residence of Archbishop Patrick D’Rozario, who was elevated as Bangladesh’s first cardinal last year by Pope Francis at The Vatican.
The 80-year-old Argentinian pontiff arrived at the house on a rickshaw, one of Dhaka’s signature modes of transportation. His predecessor, John Paul II, the last pontiff to visit Bangladesh, also rode one in 1986.
As the pope walked a red carpet rolled out in his honor, hundreds of Catholics clapped and welcomed him with a song.
The event took place after the pope celebrated an open-air Mass, attended by about 80,000 Catholics, at Dhaka’s Suhrawardy Udyan park. Before the Mass, the pontiff also met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the embassy of the Holy See.
Francis is scheduled to return to Rome on Saturday afternoon.