Pope’s Place as Refugee Champion Tested in Myanmar

State Counsellor and Union Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, right, poses with Pope Francis on the occasion of their private audience in May at the Vatican. Photo: Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis heads to Myanmar and Bangladesh with the international community excoriating Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims as “ethnic cleansing” but his own church resisting the label and defending Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the only hope for democracy.

Francis will thus be walking a fraught diplomatic tightrope during the Nov. 27-Dec. 2 visit, which will include separate meetings with Suu Kyi, the powerful head of Myanmar’s military as well as a small group of Rohingya once Francis arrives in neighboring Bangladesh.

Francis has defined his papacy by his frequent denunciations of injustices committed against refugees, and he would be expected to speak out strongly against the Rohingya plight. But he is also the guest of Myanmar’s government and must look out for the well-being of his own tiny flock, a minority of just 659,000 Catholics in the majority Buddhist nation of 51 million.

“Let’s just say it’s very interesting diplomatically,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke responded when asked if Francis’ 21st foreign trip would be his most difficult.


The Rev. Thomas Reese, an American Jesuit commentator, was more direct: “I have great admiration for the pope and his abilities, but someone should have talked him out of making this trip,” Reese wrote recently on Religion News Service.

Reese argued that Francis’ legacy as an uncompromising champion of the oppressed will come up against the harsh reality of blowback for Myanmar’s minority Christians if he goes too far in defending the Rohingya against the military’s “clearance operations” in Rakhine state.

“If he is prophetic, he puts Christians at risk,” Reese said. “If he is silent about the persecution of the Rohingya, he loses moral credibility.”

Francis isn’t known for his deference to protocol and he tends to call a spade a spade. But he has already been urged by the Catholic Church in Myanmar and his hand-picked cardinal, Charles Bo, to refrain from even using the term “Rohingya,” which is rejected by most in Myanmar.

“The pope clearly takes this advice seriously,” Burke said. “But we’ll see together.”

Francis has used the term “Rohingya” in the past, when he condemned the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers,” denounced their suffering and called for them to receive “full rights.”

Myanmar’s government and most of the Buddhist majority don’t recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group, insisting they are Bengali migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in the country. It has denied them citizenship, even though they have lived in Myanmar, also known as Burma, for generations.

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said Francis would likely call for a lasting solution for the Rakhine Muslims that takes into account “the importance for the people of having a nationality.” He declined in a Vatican Radio interview to use the term “Rohingya.”

Francis had originally intended his 2017 itinerary to involve a visit to India and Bangladesh. But preparations fell apart in India, and Myanmar was added in late, after Myanmar and the Holy See established diplomatic relations during a visit by Suu Kyi to Rome in May.

Since then, the situation on the ground has deteriorated badly, after Rohingya militants attacked security positions in poverty-wracked Rakhine in August. Myanmar security forces responded with a scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya villages that the U.N., U.S. and human rights groups have labeled as textbook “ethnic cleansing.”

More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, where they are living in squalid refugee camps. This week, the U.N. envoy on sexual violence in conflict said the widespread gang rapes and other forms of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls by the Myanmar military could amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Burke demurred when asked if the spasm of violence had complicated the Vatican’s plans, saying only that “stuff happens” and “the trip was going to happen in any case.”

Bo, whom Francis named as Myanmar’s first cardinal in 2015, has resisted terming the violence “ethnic cleansing,” saying the military response was disproportionate but that it was “premature” and unhelpful to put a label on it.

He defended Suu Kyi as Myanmar’s only hope for democracy, saying criticism against her was “unfair” and that she was working to implement recommendations by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to improve opportunities for all religious minorities, Christians among them.

The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, editor of the AsiaNews news agency that closely covers the Catholic Church in Asia, said he expected Francis would use the visit to help shore up Suu Kyi, whose international stature has suffered as a result of the crisis even though she is limited constitutionally in what she can say or do against the military.

“The question of the Rohingya is a ‘casus belli’ to eliminate the government of Aung Sang Suu Kyi,” Cervellera said. “If we take away Aung San Suu Kyi, the military dictatorship returns, which means setting all the minorities on fire.”

Francis will host an interfaith peace meeting in the garden of the Dhaka archbishops’ residence, at which a small group of Rohingya are expected.


Other highlights of the trip include Francis’ meeting with Myanmar’s Buddhist monks and encounters with Catholic youth capping the visit in each country.

The youth encounters “demonstrate that it’s a young church with hope,” Burke said.

Story: Nicole Winfield