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In Myanmar, Pope Francis calls for peace without saying ‘Rohingya’

Rohingya refugees waited for food and water at a relief centre in Bangladesh Tuesday.
Rohingya refugees waited for food and water at a relief centre in Bangladesh Tuesday. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar — Pope Francis avoided using the name of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority in a much-anticipated speech in the country’s capital Tuesday, disappointing rights advocates who had hoped he would specifically denounce the military’s campaign of violence against the Muslim ethnic group.

“Rohingya” is a highly polarized term in Myanmar, and advisers to the pope had warned him that using it during his visit — perhaps the most difficult diplomatic balancing act of his pontificate — could aggravate a tense situation.

But his decision not to do so risked diminishing his reputation as a unique global voice for the oppressed.


“The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity,” the pope said, addressing Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the country’s diplomatic corps, in a hall filled with Vatican prelates, military officials in green uniforms, and civilian officials in suits.

Francis said that respect for rule of law and the democratic order “enables each individual and every group — none excluded — to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”

The pope is often loath to publicly criticize his hosts when traveling, and in visits to countries from the United States to Egypt he has chosen to issue broad reminders about principles of democracy and justice, rather than dwell on specific shortcomings.

But many believed the situation in Myanmar, which the United States and the United Nations have called ethnic cleansing, cried out for condemnation from a pope known for championing the suffering on the margins of the world.

More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled the state of Rakhine in western Myanmar since August, when the military began a sustained campaign of killings, mass rape, and arson in response to Rohingya militants’ attacks on security posts. Francis is expected to meet with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh later in the week.


In visiting Myanmar, Francis, usually a deft political operator, found himself in an awkward and perhaps impossible situation that even some of his supporters lamented as an unforced error.

Myanmar has stripped the Rohingya of citizenship and does not consider them to be a distinct ethnic group.

Instead, most of the majority-Buddhist population regards them as interlopers from Bangladesh.

Because of this, the term Rohingya is contentious. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo and others in the church had urged the pope not to use it during his trip, for fear that any appearance of taking the side of the Muslim minority could provoke a violent backlash against Catholics in the country, who number about 700,000.

“I have come, above all, to pray with the nation’s small but fervent Catholic community,” Francis said Tuesday. “To confirm them in their faith, and to encourage them in their efforts to contribute to the good of the nation.”