Pope Francis Calls Bangladeshi Authorities to Action Over Rohingya Crisis

The Holy Father arrived in Bangladesh Nov. 30 with words of praise for the humanitarian assistance the nation has given to Rohingya Muslim refugees.

Pope Francis speaks to civic authorities in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Nov. 30.
Pope Francis speaks to civic authorities in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Nov. 30. (photo: Edward Pentin)

Pope Francis arrived in Bangladesh Nov. 30 with words of praise for the humanitarian assistance the nation has given to Rohingya Muslim refugees and urged greater action on their behalf from the international community.

The Holy Father also made visits to two of the country’s important landmarks — the National Martyrs’ Memorial in Savar and the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum — and spoke to civic authorities early on his three-day voyage.

Arriving at the airport around 3pm local time, the Pope Francis was greeted by President Abdul Hamid. Two children in traditional dress then brought flowers and a jar of soil to the Pope, who blessed them.

Also present at the airport were political and civil authorities, 10 Bangladeshi bishops, a group of faithful and 40 children, who performed traditional dances for Francis. Ninety percent of the 156-million population of the republic is Muslim. There are 375,000 Catholics, 12 bishops and 372 total priests, both religious and diocesan.

Pope Francis traveled from the airport to the National Martyrs’ Memorial in Savar, which is the national monument of Bangladesh. It stands in memory of all those who gave their lives in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, which brought independence and separated Bangladesh from Pakistan.

At the memorial, the Pope placed a wreath of flowers and then signed the Book of Honor. He also planted a tree in the memorial’s adjoining Garden of Peace.

Afterward, Francis stopped at the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum in Dkaha City, which honors former “Father of the Nation of Bangladesh,” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated, alongside most of his family, in August 1975.

Speaking to Harmid and the nation’s authorities and diplomatic corps, the Pope said that, in recent months, “the spirit of generosity and solidarity” the country is known for “has been seen most vividly in its humanitarian outreach to a massive influx of refugees from Rakhine state.”

He noted how Bangladesh “at no little sacrifice” has provided shelter and basic necessities for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims at its border.

With the eyes of the world watching the crisis unfold, no one “can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps,” he said.

It is therefore “imperative” that the international community “take decisive measures to address this grave crisis.”

Resolution, he said, means not only working to resolve the political problems that led to the mass displacement of people in recent months, “but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs.”

Pope Francis spoke hours after arriving in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for the second phase of his Nov. 27-Dec. 2 tour of Asia. He was in Burma, also known as Myanmar, Nov. 27-30.

In his speech to authorities, the Pope praised the natural beauty in Bangladesh, which is seen in its vast network of rivers and waterways, saying the vision is symbolic of the nation’s identity as a people made up of various languages and backgrounds.

Pope Francis then pointed to the nation’s first leaders, whom he said “envisioned a modern, pluralistic and inclusive society in which every person and community could live in freedom, peace and security, with respect for the innate dignity and equal rights of all.”

Bangladesh gained independence from West Pakistan in 1971, after a bloody nine-month war that began when Pakistani military attacked the eastern state in a bid to eliminate Bengali nationalists from the region. West Pakistan began its assault in March 1971 and surrendered in December of the same year, resulting in the independence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

The future of democracy in the young nation and the health of its political life, then, are “essentially linked” to fidelity to the original vision of the founding fathers, Pope Francis said.

“Only through sincere dialogue and respect for legitimate diversity can a people reconcile divisions, overcome unilateral perspectives and recognize the validity of differing viewpoints,” Francis said, adding that true dialogue looks to the future and builds unity in the service of the common good.

This dialogue, he said, is also concerned for the needs of “all citizens, especially the poor, the underprivileged and those who have no voice.”

These words are especially relevant for Bangladesh, which is among the most populated countries in the world, but is also one of the poorest, with nearly 30% of the population living below the poverty line.

In his speech, Pope Francis noted that Bangladesh is known for the sense of harmony that exists between followers of different religions, saying this atmosphere of mutual respect and interreligious dialogue “enables believers to express freely their deepest convictions about the meaning and purpose of life.”

Speaking of the role Catholics play in the country, Pope Francis said they have an essential contribution, specifically through the schools, clinics and medical centers run by the Church.

The Church, he said, “appreciates the freedom to practice her faith and to pursue her charitable works, which benefit the entire nation, not least by providing for young people, who represent the future of society.”

He noted how many of the students and teachers in Church-run schools are not Catholic and voiced his confidence that in keeping with the Bangladeshi constitution, the Church “will continue to enjoy the freedom to carry out these good works as an expression of its commitment to the common good.”

The Pope closed his speech by assuring his prayers “that, in your lofty responsibilities, you will always be inspired by the high ideals of justice and service to your fellow citizens.”

Harmid also pointed to Francis’ message on mercy, which he said Bangladesh has put into practice with its welcome of the Rohingya Muslims.

“It is our shared responsibility to ensure for them a safe, sustainable and dignified return to their own home and integration with the social, economic and political life of Myanmar,” he said, adding that the Pope’s “passionate” condemnation of the brutality they face brings hope for a resolution.

“Your closeness to them, your call for helping them, and to ensure their full rights, gives moral responsibility to the international community to act with promptness and sincerity.”