Pope faces tightrope act in Myanmar amid Rohingya crisis

Pope Francis has arrived in Myanmar as the country grapples with the Rohingya crisis. While some stress the pontiff should refrain from using the contentious term "Rohingya," others disagree vehemently.

Pope Francis' trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh on Monday comes as the region confronts turbulent times, not least because of the festering Rohingya crisis. The violence and consequent displacement facing Rohingya Muslims based in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine have come under close scrutiny worldwide.

In August this year, violence flared up once again after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) raided several police posts and killed 12 people, according to government figures. The ARSA claims it is acting to secure the rights of the Rohingya.

Read more: Opinion: The pope is visiting a minefield in Myanmar

Pope Francis visits Myanmar

Landmark Mass

Pope Francis traveled to Yangon's Kyaikkasan football stadium on Wednesday to celebrate his first public Mass in Myanmar. The pontiff told the crowd of some 150,000 worshippers to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the country's suffering, and instead promote peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.

Pope Francis visits Myanmar

Meeting the Lady

On Tuesday, the first full day of his Myanmar visit, Pope Francis was in the capital, Naypyidaw, for talks with Myanmar President Htin Kyaw and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Rights groups had called for him to speak out about the country's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. In a speech, Francis urged "respect for each ethnic group," but did not mention the Rohingya by name.

Pope Francis visits Myanmar

'United in diversity'

Earlier, Francis met with leaders of Myanmar's different religious communities at the archbishop's residence in Yangon. During the gathering, the pontiff stressed the importance of "unity in diversity."

Pope Francis visits Myanmar

Roll out the red carpet

Although only 700,000 of Myanmar's 52 million inhabitants are Catholic, that didn't keep thousands of well-wishers from meeting Pope Francis at the airport on Monday and lining the streets of Yangon in order to catch a glimpse of the bishop of Rome.

Pope Francis visits Myanmar

A cause for celebration

"We come here to see the Holy Father. It happens once in hundreds of years," one Catholic community leader, who brought 1,800 Christians from the south and west to the country on the long train journey to Yangon, told Reuters news agency.

Pope Francis visits Myanmar

Minorities greet the pontiff

The pope was greeted by ethnic minorities in traditional dress. About 88 percent of Burmese people identify as Buddhist.

Pope Francis visits Myanmar

Humanitarian crisis

The government of Myanmar has been accused of "ethnic cleansing" including the widespread murder and rape of Rohingya Muslims in the country's Rakhine state. Once refugees from Bangladesh, the Rohingya have been declared stateless and persecuted by the Myanmar government.

Pope Francis visits Myanmar

Meeting with the commander

Soon after his arrival on Monday, Pope Francis received a "courtesy visit" from Myanmar's army chief Gerneal Min Aung Hlaing. The Vatican did not provide details about the brief meeting. Myanmar's military has been accused of violent purges of Rohingya villages.

Pope Francis visits Myanmar

First stop

After Myanmar, the pontiff will head to Bangladesh, where many Rohingya have fled. Some inside the Vatican have said that the trip was arranged too hastily after a visit by the now controversial leader Aung San Suu Kyi to Rome last May.

The response from  Myanmar's military was swift and brutal. Since it launched its counterattack, some 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh so far. The UN and human rights groups like Amnesty International speak of ethnic cleansing, accusing soldiers of committing "crimes against humanity," including murder, rape and burning down entire villages. The military, though, forcefully denies allegations that it has committed atrocities against the Rohingya.

Pope Francis, who has established himself as a strong human rights advocate, has repeatedly called for solidarity with the people regarded as one of the most persecuted communities in the world. In August, the Pope appealed for an end to violence against the Rohingya and urged "full rights" to be given to the community. "My full closeness to our persecuted Rohingya brothers and sisters," he said.

'Rohingya' or 'Rakhine State Muslims'?

Prior to the papal visit, Yangon's Archbishop Charles Bo met the pope in Rome and reportedly recommended that the head of the worldwide Catholic Church refrain from using the controversial term "Rohingya" in Myanmar. Instead, it's suggested that the pope use "Rakhine State Muslims," to avoid controversy. Much of Myanmar's Buddhist-majority population reject the term "Rohingya" and refuse to recognize them as a separate ethnic group or as Myanmar citizens.

Even former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and author of an advisory commission report on Rakhine State, indicated that the pope should not use the term "Rohingya."

Human rights groups, however, call on the pope to raise the issue during his trip.

"The Rohingya have little left besides their group name after years of statelessness, discriminatory restrictions on movement and access to life-sustaining services, and being targeted by a military subjecting them to ethnic cleansing and atrocities," Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia, told Reuters news agency. "The Pope absolutely should stand up for the Rohingya by using the name Rohingya," he said.

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It's unclear whether or not Francis will heed the advice and use a term like "Muslims in Rakhine State." The Vatican does not make comments on papal speeches ahead of trips.

Rohingya children: Raped, kidnapped, orphaned

Shot and stabbed

Since August, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh. "The day the military came, they burnt down the village and shot my mother as she was trying to escape. My father couldn’t walk, so they stabbed him. I saw this with my own eyes," says 10-year-old Mohammed Belal who managed to run away from his village.

Rohingya children: Raped, kidnapped, orphaned

Haunted by the trauma

Mohammed’s sister Nur also watched the slaughter. She and her brother now live in a shelter for unaccompanied children in Bangladesh. She can play there and gets regular meals, a stark contrast to her journey from Myanmar where she and her brother nearly starved. But she is still haunted by the trauma of the recent weeks. "I miss my parents, my home, my country," she says.

Rohingya children: Raped, kidnapped, orphaned

Deep-rooted conflict

The conflict, which has been going on for 70 years and is rooted in the post-World War II social organization of the country, has claimed more than 2,000 victims since 2016, including the mother of 12-year-old Rahman, above. "They set fire to my home, and my mother was ill, so she could not leave," he says.

Rohingya children: Raped, kidnapped, orphaned

Save the children

Dilu-Aara, 5, came to the camp with her sister Rojina after she witnessed her parents being murdered by the military. "I was crying all the time and the bullets were flying over our heads. I escaped somehow." The international aid agency Save the Children is helping minors who come to Kutupalong without parents. Children make up to 60 percent of all Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Rohingya children: Raped, kidnapped, orphaned

Hunted like animals

Jaded Alam is among the hundreds of kids who came to Kutupalong without parents. Fortunately, his aunt cares for him — and very well, he admits. Jaded grew up in a village called Mandi Para where he used to love playing football, but everything changed when the military attacked. "They told us to leave our home. When I was running with my parents, they shot them. They died on the spot," he says.

Rohingya children: Raped, kidnapped, orphaned

Child abductions

Not all families have been separated during their plight, however. Rahman Ali has been scouring the refugee camp for weeks now after his 10-year-old son Zifad disappeared. Rumors of child abductions have swirled around the camp for years, and Rahman fears his son has fallen prey to human traffickers. "I can't eat, I can’t sleep. I’m so upset! It’s like I’ve gone mad."

Rohingya children: Raped, kidnapped, orphaned

"My mind is not normal"

When the shooting started, Sokina Khatun did all she could to protect her children — but she couldn't save Yasmine,15, and Jamalita, 20, who were in a neighboring village at the time. "Their throats were cut in front of their grandparents," she says. "I was numb, I couldn’t feel the pain. Right now my mind is not normal," she says. She managed to rescue nine of her offspring.

Rohingya children: Raped, kidnapped, orphaned

Attacked, raped and robbed

Yasmine thinks she might be 15 but looks considerably younger. In her village, she used to play with marbles and run in the nearby fields, but different memories haunt her now: The attack by Myanmar forces, the beating and murder of her beloved father and brothers, and the rape by a group of Burmese soldiers who also robbed her. "I felt lots of pain in my body," she says.

Balancing act

Yangon's Cardinal Charles Maung Bo was quoted by Radio Vatican as saying that the papal visit would focus mainly on the peaceful coexistence of different religious communities.

For years, the social situation in the country has been uneasy. The cardinal stresses that the pope could help end the spiral of violence. In this regard, Cardinal Bo advised Francis to meet with Myanmar's army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, during his trip. As supreme commander of the armed forces, the general has tremendous power and significant impact on the nation's politics. "For sixty years," he said, "the Church has had no dialogue with the Army, while now a relationship has started, and we hope that the dialogue will improve."

Last but not least, he recommended that Pope Francis meet with influential Burmese working for interreligious dialogue and harmony.

Peace and love

The motto of the visit is "peace and love." The symbol for the journey, designed by the Catholic Church, shows the pope with a dove of peace, next to an outline of Myanmar in the colors of the rainbow, which is expected to represent ethnic and religious diversity. The whole thing is surrounded by the flags of the Vatican and Myanmar in a heart shape.

Catholics are one of the smallest religious communities in Myanmar, accounting for only 660,000 (1.2 percent) of the country's population of 53 million.

So far, it is known that the pope will meet President Htin Kyaw and State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi. After an interfaith-ecumenical peace meeting, among other events with Buddhist monks, a public mass is planned for November 29, following which Francis is scheduled to travel to Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi Catholics threatened

Bangladesh has witnessed repeated incidents of violence against Catholics in recent years.

In 2001, radical Muslims detonated a bomb at a Mass, killing nine people. There were numerous violent attacks between 2014 and 2016, in which Catholics' houses were set on fire and priests were assaulted.

"The current situation faced by Catholics in Bangladesh is difficult but stable," said Rana Dasgupta, a lawyer who heads an organization representing minority religious communities in Bangladesh. "But I am afraid that the situation will worsen four or five months before elections," he told DW.

Bangladesh is set to hold a general election at the end of next year. In the run-up to elections in recent years, there has always been an increase in violence against minorities.

Dasgupta hopes that the pope's visit will increase understanding and compassion among various religious communities, especially as violent extremists seem to be gaining strength in society.

The Catholic community in Bangladesh is even smaller than the one in Myanmar, accounting for a mere 375,000 (about 0.2 percent) out of a population of 165 million.

In the South Asian country, the pope is scheduled to visit national memorials honoring the martyrs of Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971. He will also hold meetings with President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Towards the end of the trip, a meeting with clerics is planned as well as a trip to a Mother Teresa nuns' orphanage in the capital, Dhaka.