DHAKA, Bangladesh — Pope Francis wrapped up his three-day visit to Bangladesh Saturday, having placed the plight of refugees and interreligious dialogue — two central issues of this pontificate — at the center of his trip.
As during his visit to Burma earlier in the week, the Rohingya refugee crisis loomed large. But free of the political sensitivities in Burma, the Pope answered the persistent question of whether he would call them by name by saying the word “Rohingya” at a meeting of interreligious leaders Friday evening.
A brutal crackdown in August by the Burmese military led to more than 620,000 members of the Islamic ethnic group, which numbers more than 1 million, to be driven from their homes. The United Nations called it “textbook ethnic cleansing”; the military said it was responding to the killing of 12 Burmese police officers by Rohingya insurgents. Members of the ethnic minority have long complained of being unfairly treated, discriminated against and marginalized.
The group has been stateless for decades: The Burmese government and the majority of the Burmese people, most of whom are Buddhists, see them as Bengali and not belonging to the country; Bangladeshis similarly see them as not belonging to them either. Some Rohingya, therefore, describe their plight as like being “trapped between a crocodile and a snake,” and they yearn for someone to tell them “where we belong,” Benedict Rogers, an authority on Burma, told the Register.
Such was the backdrop to Pope Francis’ meeting with 16 members of the ethnic group from Cox’s Bazar, a city close to the border of Burma and Bangladesh, on Friday.
“We are very close to you,” the Pope said off the cuff, after bringing them onstage and greeting them one by one. “There’s little we can do because your tragedy is very hard and great, but we make space in our hearts for you.”
Two of them openly wept as the Pope spoke. Earlier, the Holy Father laid his hand on the head of a young Rohingya girl and kissed the head of the youngest member, a 5-year-old boy. As one of the refugees said a prayer aloud, the Pope invited interreligious leaders to greet and embrace the refugees in a show of solidarity.
The Pope said their suffering had been the result of individualism, asked for their forgiveness for all the hurt and persecution they have endured, and demanded their rights be recognized. He went on to explain that all people are born in the image and likeness of God — that “we will not close our hearts, nor look at the darker side,” as “today the presence of God is also called the Rohingya.”
Afterward, one of the 16, Abdul Khoyam, said he was pleased the Pope would do whatever he could and that, “with Allah’s help, all my troubles will go away.” The Pope, he said, asked him “to not lose patience.”
Expectations were high the Pope would mention the ethnic group by name after he received widespread criticism from human-rights groups for not doing so in Burma.
In his first discourse at the presidential palace in Dhaka, Francis said it was “imperative” that the international community take “decisive measures” to help the refugees. He praised Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid for giving them shelter; Hamid said such generosity was typical of the Bangladeshi people, but made it clear his government wants them to return to Rakhine state as soon as possible.
On the plane back to Rome, the Pope expressed satisfaction that his message at the meeting had “arrived.”
But the attention placed on the crisis dominated media coverage of the weeklong apostolic voyage.
Striking was the warm and generous reception the Pope received in Bangladesh, from one of the world’s poorest countries of just 700,000 Catholics in a predominantly Muslim population of more than 160 million. A guard of honor and a gun salute awaited him, as well as enormous banners lining the streets of the capital. They said Francis was being given the “heartiest welcome” and “Long live Pope Francis.” A large message spread across a footbridge heralded more than 40 years of diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
At the Pope’s open-air Mass Friday morning, during which he ordained 16 priests, 80,000 Bangladesh Catholics took part, many of them traveling with family and friends long distances across the country.
“It’s like a revival meeting, a way to wake up sleeping Christians,” said Rony Boby Hebok, an English teacher in Dhaka, adding he had come to see the Pope “because my cup is empty, and I’m here to fill it up.”
“In other parts of the world, vocations are going down,” Jesuit Father George Ponodath, an Indian missionary, told the Register, but said the ordinations were “a sign” of a growing Church in Bangladesh. One of the new priests, Father Josim Murmu, converted from Hinduism and brought with him into the faith his whole family and the entire community of his tribal village — 800 inhabitants in total. Father Ponodath said such a phenomenon was “quite normal” in the country.
The Holy Father began his visit to the country, where Christians are relatively free to practice their faith, by telling its leaders it is a “young state” that has always held a “special place in the heart of the popes.”
Both Paul VI and John Paul II visited Bangladesh, expressing solidarity with the country after its difficult struggle for independence following the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971. But Francis said they each held the country up as an example of unity in diversity — a repeated theme of Francis’ trip — and the Holy Father drew attention to the vast network of rivers and waterways that unite the country. Bangladesh is a nation, the Pope said, that, like so many streams, combines and respects “different traditions and communities,” enriching its “social and political life.”
The following day, the Pope celebrated the ordination Mass, giving a discourse on the true meaning of the priestly vocation: to serve Christ as teacher, priest and shepherd. He also thanked the many faithful who had come to the Mass for their generosity, saying it was a “sign” of their love for Christ.
In his message later that day to the country’s bishops, the Pope spoke of the need for them to be “present in the way that God is present to us” and to show “ever greater pastoral closeness” to the faithful so they can grow. He also urged them to create a “culture of mercy” so local churches can show their “option for the poor” and contribute to the “integral development” of their homeland.
The Pope called for an “openness of heart” in interreligious dialogue at the meeting of religious leaders Friday that immediately preceded his words to the Rohingya. Such an attitude, he said, is a door to a dialogue of life, a ladder to the transcendent, and a path to “goodness, justice and solidarity.” Amid loud cheers and singing, the Pope arrived at the event riding a rickshaw into a large tented garden filled with several thousand people.
The following morning, the Pope visited the Tejgaon Mother Teresa House in Dhaka, which is run by the Missionaries of Charity and since 1976 has cared for the poor and the sick. Nearby, he then gave an improvised discourse to priests, religious and seminarians, in which explained how they can grow to spiritual fullness by caring for the seed sown by God.
The Holy Father stressed the importance of praying in order to discern, warned against the “terrorism” of gossip, and said living a full life of charity will bring a lasting, heartfelt joy, resulting in the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
At his final engagement, with youth at Notre Dame College in the city, the Pope urged the young people present never to lose their enthusiasm and to “keep moving,” especially in moments of sadness, but making sure to keep on the right path. He said God has placed within us a kind of “software” that needs constant “updating” by listening to the Lord and accepting the challenge to do his will.
Wisdom can be lost, he told them, by wandering aimlessly, but can be remedied by seeing “with the eyes of God.” He warned against looking inward, which, when it comes to religion, can lead to a “self-righteous” mentality, and urged respect for the elderly.
“Keep talking to your parents and grandparents,” the Pope said. “Do not spend the whole day playing with your phone and ignoring the world around you!”
On the plane back to Rome, the Holy Father said the trip had done him good, as he values the encounters not just with the country’s political and religious leaders, but with the people at large, “who are truly the depth of a country.”
He said, when he finds this, he is “happy.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.