Updated at 5:04 p.m ET on 2017-11-29
Pope Francis, who is scheduled to arrive in Dhaka on Thursday, plans to meet with Prime Sheikh Hasina, celebrate mass with 80,000 Catholic faithful, and will likely visit with a group of Rohingya refugees before returning to Rome on Saturday, local officials said.
Bangladesh – home to about 400,000 Catholics – has been preparing for the pope’s visit since August. It will be the first papal visit to Bangladesh since Pope John Paul II in 1986, and only the second in the country’s history.
“All preparations have been finalized for this state visit. We are enthusiastically waiting to welcome His Holiness Pope Francis in Bangladesh,” Mohammad Khorshed Alam Khastagir, the director in-charge of the Europe desk at the foreign ministry, told BenarNews.
“This is a historic visit. This visit will brighten Bangladesh’s image as a secular, peaceful, and tolerant country,” Khastagir said.
The majority Sunni-Muslim nation has seen growing religious conservatism and a series of deadly attacks on secular writers, minorities and foreigners in recent years.
The nation was rocked by a terror attack on an upscale café in Dhaka in July 2016 that left 29 people dead, including five attackers who had claimed allegiance to the Islamic State.
Francis will be arriving in Bangladesh on the heels of a first-ever papal visit to Myanmar, the target of international criticism in recent weeks over a bloody crackdown on its persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh since August amid allegations of ethnic cleansing.
In Naypyidaw on Tuesday, Francis urged leaders of Buddhist-majority Myanmar to “respect human rights” in a veiled reference to the Rohingya, but refrained from using the term “Rohingya” in discussions with officials, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refers to them disparagingly as “Bengalis.”
The following day, in Yangon, the pontiff called on high-level Buddhist monks to overcome “prejudice and hatred.”
“If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice, and hatred,” the 80-year-old Argentinian pontiff, told members of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na), a Myanmar government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks that oversees and regulates the country’s estimated 600,000-strong Buddhist clergy.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said law enforcement officers had been deployed throughout the capital city region to ensure the pope’s safety.
“His Holiness Pope is our revered state guest. We will give him maximum security,” Khan told BenarNews. “The people of Bangladesh are secular and hospitable. They believe in the peaceful coexistence of all faiths.”
The visit comes just days after a Catholic priest went missing. Priest Walter William Rosario, headmaster of a Catholic school in northwestern Natore district, has not been seen or heard from since Monday afternoon.
“The Father had been organizing the local Christians to attend the mass prayer of Pope Francis in Dhaka,” Nirmal Rozario, president of Bangladesh Christian Association, told BenarNews. “Last year, militants carried out an attack in the Christian village in Natore. So, we are very worried.”
A grocer was hacked to death in that attack.
Natore district police superintendent Biplob Bijoy Talukder told BenarNews that security forces were searching for the priest.
“We have yet to find him. The last time his mobile phone was active was at 4:25 p.m. Monday,” he said. “We do not know whether he was abducted or what happened to him.”
After arriving at 3 p.m. Thursday (local time), Pope Francis is scheduled to go to the National Martyrs’ Memorial in Dhaka, which honors those who died during the 1971 War of Independence. He will then visit the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum, the house where founding President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated on Aug. 15, 1975.
On Friday, Francis is expected to celebrate mass at 10 a.m. at the Suhrawardy Udyan national memorial and stadium in Dhaka, with about 80,000 people expected to attend.
The pope champions issues that are important to Bangladeshis, said Khastagir, the foreign ministry official.
“Pope Francis is vocal against climate change. He promotes refugee rights, peace and tranquility. We also promote similar values. When he talks about the issues, it strengthens our position,” he said.
In the afternoon, Francis will welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Vatican embassy in Dhaka, followed by a meeting with other religious leaders at Archbishop House, at Dhaka’s Catholic cathedral.
“The pope is likely to meet a group of Rohingya refugees before or after the inter-religious and ecumenical meeting,” Khastagir said.
On Saturday, Francis will visit the Mother Teresa House in Dhaka’s Tejgaon neighborhood and meet young people at Notre Dame College of Dhaka before flying back to the Vatican.
A dream come true
In late 2016, Francis acknowledged Bangladesh’s tiny Catholic community by naming the country’s first cardinal. Patrick D’Rozario, 73, was elevated to the second highest position in the Catholic Church during a ceremony at the Vatican in November.
Catholics make up less than half of 1 percent of Bangladesh’s population of 160 million people.
“I cherished the dream of seeing the pope in person, but I never thought that my dream would come true,” August Hazda, a Catholic, told BenarNews. “But he is coming to see us. My dream is about to come true.”
His sentiments were shared by others.
“We never thought that he would visit a country with very few Christians,” Patric d’Costa told BenarNews.
Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister service of BenarNews, contributed to this report.