The most famous Catholic leader in the world made a speech in Myanmar yesterday without mentioning the ongoing violent crackdown against that country’s Muslim minority.
Pope Francis, who has often advocated for refugees in the past, called for respect for “each ethnic group” but did not mention the Rohingya community by name.
The pope spoke from the capital Naypyidaw after meeting with Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the second day of his four-day trip to the country, where he has been meeting with politicians and religious leaders of different faiths.
Human rights groups had hoped that he would mention the Rohingya to draw attention to their ongoing persecution in the country. The pope has spoken out about the plight of refugees on many occasions, and even explicitly called out the hypocrisy of Christians who refuse to treat them humanely.
But his advisers, who had reportedly cautioned him against referring to the Rohingya by name so as not to cause a diplomatic incident that could put the country’s minority Christian community at risk, seem to have won out.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar
In Myanmar, as Vox’s Sarah Wildman writes, the Muslim minority is so persecuted that even the word “Rohingya” is considered taboo. The country’s leaders don’t use it, and the Rohingya are not an officially recognized ethnic minority.
Instead, they are referred to as “Bengalis” to support a disputed narrative about how the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Since the Myanmarese military instituted a targeted campaign of violence and brutality against the Rohingya in August, more than 620,000 of the country’s Muslim minority population have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.
The military has reportedly burned entire villages, massacred men, women, and children, and engaged in systematic rape.
Suu Kyi, who was elected as the country’s leader in 2015 and is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has also come under fire for failing to denounce the brutal violence against the Rohingya community.
French President Emmanuel Macron has referred to the campaign as genocide, and earlier this month, under international pressure, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the brutal treatment of the Rohingya “ethnic cleansing.”
But the situation shows no signs of improving anytime soon.
Last week, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a pact to repatriate some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled there, potentially putting them in a very dangerous situation. Bangladesh has received a massive influx of refugees in recent months from the northern Rakhine province of Myanmar.
Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh before the end of his trip.