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Not just Rohingya: Pope Francis’ message to Myanmar and Bangladesh

Pope Francis meets Rohingya refugees from Myanmar during an interreligious and ecumenical meeting for peace in the garden of the archbishop’s residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1 Dec 2017. (CNS/Paul Haring)

ROME  – At the end of his trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh [27 Nov – 2 Dec 2017], Pope Francis said the fateful word: Rohingya. In saying it, he did not “slam the door shut ” or tear his clothes, rather he asked forgiveness for the world’s indifference and caressed the faces of men, women and children whose family members were killed, or who had to flee from the military onslaught. The Pope met 16 in Dhaka, and all of them prayed and cried with him. “God,” said Francis, ” is also Rohingya.”

The global media were waiting for this word in order to condemn the violence of the Burmese army, denounce the inanity of the leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to plunge Myanmar under the weight of sanctions. In some respects, it gave the impression that this journey’s significance hinged on that one word. But in this way, the media failed to show all the richness of the pontiff’s message and the impulse that he has given to this region of the world which is both so rich and so poor.

It is true that in Myanmar Francis did not use the word “Rohingya,” rather he spoke of all minorities (Kachin, Chin, Karen, Naga, Kaya, …) who suffer the same things as Rohingya without ever making headlines. And the pope said that citizenship is necessary for all, the distribution of wealth, the collaboration to build peace in Burmese society. The decades of military dictatorship have created almost incurable wounds, violence and wars, but the pope has asked everyone, especially the Christians, to forgive and work for reconciliation to ward off the spectre of a war in which everyone loses.

This is why Pope Francis did not court media praise or condemnation. Instead, he outlined constructive paths of hope. This is why in both countries, in Myanmar and Bangladesh, he spoke to young people to support their enthusiasm and propose a path of hope for the future. Young people who emigrate, who accept slave-like working conditions, or who take up arms, who risk living like the desperate. Francis asked young Christians to be catalysts of hope.

This means not burying oneself within the folds of one’s own ethnic or religious group, nurturing suspicion towards others, remaining inert and sceptical, but opening oneself to encounter, sustained by the common dignity of every person.

The collaboration between religions is the other pillar of this journey: with the Islamic majority in Bangladesh and with the Buddhist one in Myanmar it is important to work so that the economic development underway in these two countries is founded on the mystery of human dignity, and not only on profit, the exploitation of labour and child slaves. Francis has shown that by valuing the religious dimension, one can have the common good more easily at heart.

He wanted to meet with the leaders of the religions both in Myanmar and in Bangladesh and with them he condemned the violence and terrorism that manipulate the name of God, but above all he pushed them to work together for a society of which man is at the centre, whatever his ethnicity, because he is made in the image of God.

A final word on the Churches of these two countries, small minorities often in the cyclone of persecution. The pope praised the Christians who, despite being a “mustard seed,”  give sustenance to the population and the poor in Bangladesh and Myanmar. The esteem that Christians enjoy is primarily due to their service: schools, hospitals, agricultural and labour cooperatives. But in this service, people discover with wonder the reasons for the love of Christ. It is not by chance that in both Bangladesh and in Myanmar the Church grows every year, there are abundant vocations and these small communities already send missionaries to other lands.

It was perhaps one of the first times that all the Christian ethnic groups of Myanmar and the dozens of Bangladeshi ethnic groups gathered together, arousing the admiration of Buddhists and Muslims. A good promise for the future. – Bernardo Cervellera,

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