Perhaps as important as what Pope Francis will say during his visit to Burma this week is what he might not say.
As he arrived for the first papal visit to the country, speculation mainly circled around the question whether the pope would use the term “Rohingya” to describe the country’s Muslim minority, which has been the target of a brutal military “clearance operation.”
Rohingya Muslims are not officially recognized as a minority in Burma even though many have lived there for generations. Burmese officials — and many among the predominantly Buddhist population — reject “Rohingya” and are instead using “Bengalis” to emphasize their disputed argument that the Rohingya migrated illegally to the country from Bangladesh.
Burma’s small Catholic community has similarly urged the Pope to refrain from using the term, as such a move would likely be interpreted as foreign meddling in domestic affairs by the Burmese leadership.
But as a religious leader who has repeatedly defied the restraint his predecessors may have shown, observers believe that Pope Francis could still emphasize his support for the minority by deliberately using the factually correct but politically fraught term.
Pope Francis had already prayed for “our Rohingya brothers and sisters,” ahead of his visit. If he refrained from reusing the term while in Burma, his supporters elsewhere may interpret his caution as moral weakness. It could be seen as a contradictory signal by a pope who has been a vocal supporter of refugees across the globe and was previously quoted as saying that he does not like “the contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand, are against refugees and other religions.”
Whereas some hope that the pope’s use of the term would increase pressure on Burma’s leadership to refrain from further repression and violence targeting Rohingya Muslims, others fear that such a move could escalate tensions further.
About 600,000 Rohingya Muslims had to flee across the border into Bangladesh in recent months, after the military targeted the minority. The U.S. government classified the violence as “ethnic cleansing” last week and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blamed the Burmese government, military and local vigilantes for “horrendous atrocities” in Burma’s western Rakhine state.
The Burmese military is denying any involvement in the atrocities and members of other religious groups in the country, such as Buddhists and Hindus, claim that they were in turn the targets of violence by the Rohingya.
In the midst of the conflict, the pope will meet with Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s military leadership as well as Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh during his six-day visit, which ends on Saturday. Although the trip was planned ahead of the most recent escalation of violence, which has lasted for more than three months, it is now inevitably being dominated by the ethnic cleansing or genocide allegations the Burmese government and military are facing from the United States, the United Nations and other Western governments.
Burma’s Catholic Church leadership has also refrained from calling the violence against the Rohingya minority “ethnic cleansing” — likely due to fears of repercussions the use of the term could have for the Catholic minority — just 650,000 in a country of 53 million.
Whereas the Vatican spokesman defended the pope’s use of the term as not being “a prohibited word” ahead of the visit, senior Vatican diplomat Cardinal Pietro Parolin was careful to not mention it in a pre-visit interview.
Some within the Catholic Church have started to wonder whether going ahead with the visit could turn out to be a lose-lose situation. In a commentary for the Religion News Service, Jesuit priest Thomas Reese argued that the pope “risks either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country.”
“I have great admiration for the pope and his abilities, but someone should have talked him out of making this trip,” Reese wrote.
As he embarked on the trip on Sunday evening, the Pope still expressed optimism, however: “They say it’s too hot (in Myanmar). I’m sorry, but let’s hope it will at least be fruitful.”
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