With Pope Francis in Myanmar on the first papal trip ever to the country, there has been furious speculation over whether or not he will say the R-word: Rohingya.
The pope arrived in Myanmar today (Nov. 27), just days after the government agreed, with conditions, to begin working towards the return of tens of thousands of Rohingyas who fled the Southeast Asian nation for Bangladesh after facing violent military retaliation following a militant attack on security posts in late August. Outside Myanmar, the word is just the name for the country’s beleaguered Muslim community. Inside, the use of the word implies the user is siding with the Rohingya, and against the many people in Myanmar who insist the Muslim community are outsiders and “Bengalis,” like the people of neighboring Bangladesh.
The pope has used the word in the past. During his Aug. 27 Sunday Angelus address at the Vatican, Francis said he was following the “sad news of the religious persecution of our brother and sister Rohingya” and called for them to have “full rights.”
Now he’s on Myanmar territory, facing an appeal from the country’s first-ever cardinal not to use the word, for fear it could cause fresh violence against Muslims, or Myanmar’s tiny Christian population. Cardinal Charles Bo, who in an interview with Vatican Radio appeared reluctant himself to use the word Rohingya, said the group had suffered from great violence, adding that Middle East-based media had exaggerated the situation.
The pope’s words ahead of his trip may already signal too clearly for some in Myanmar where the pontiff stands. His 15-minute Sunday (Nov. 26) homily, spoken from a window before his weekly recitation of the Angelus prayer with visiting pilgrims standing in St. Peter’s Square, sounded rather like a parable on the two countries and their treatment of the Rohingya.
The Vatican Radio site reported that the pope reflected on the last judgment and how the just would be distinguished from the rest. The decisive criteria will be, he said, “concrete love for our neighbor in difficulty.”
“‘I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you hosted me. I was sick and you visited me,’” Francis said, reciting verses that appear in the Gospel of Matthew relating to Jesus describing the deeds through which the just become known. “The just were surprised because they didn’t remember ever having met Jesus, nor having met him in such circumstances… [Jesus tells them] ‘Whoever has done these for the smallest of my brothers has done it for me.’”
Coming on the eve of his departure to Myanmar and Bangladesh, it’s easy to read the story as relating to how to treat those who flee violence, much as the Rohingya have—and even as praise for Bangladesh.
The pope went on to remind that Christ distances himself from those who “who during their lives don’t think of the needs of their brother…They say, ‘If we had seen you, I’m sure we would have helped you. The answer comes, ‘All that you didn’t do for the smallest of these sufferers, you denied to me.’”
The pope arrived in Yangon, and in a surprise, met with senior general Min Aung Hlaing (paywall), the commander-in-chief of the military, which has been accused of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. That visit was supposed to happen later in the trip.
Tomorrow (Nov. 28), the pope will meet with state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel peace prize for stalwartly opposing the military junta but has been widely criticized this year for failing to denounce the military over the Rohingya crisis. He will also deliver a closely watched speech.
Portions of the pope’s visit can be seen live on the Vatican’s YouTube channel. On Nov. 30, Francis will depart for Bangladesh, for the first visit by a pope to that country in more than 30 years.