DHAKA, Bangladesh— Pope Francis praised Bangladesh’s ongoing efforts to help the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have entered the country from neighboring Myanmar in recent months.
“In recent months, the spirit of generosity and solidarity which is a distinguishing mark of Bangladeshi society has been seen most vividly in its humanitarian outreach to a massive influx of refugees from Rakhine State, providing them with temporary shelter and the basic necessities of life,” the Pope said at the beginning of his visit to Bangladesh. “This has been done at no little sacrifice. It has also been done before the eyes of the whole world.”
The government of Bangladesh, which already hosted some 400,00 Rohingya refugees, has accepted nearly 625,000 more since August, as the Rohingya have fled oppression in their home of Rakhine state in Myanmar.
Bangladesh has signed an agreement with Myanmar that would allow the Rohingya to repatriate over time, while at the same time expanding refugee camps and constructing tens of thousands of shelters for them in Bangladesh until they are able to return.
In addition, the government of Bangladesh is providing medical help, including vaccinations for children, and is registering the refugees so they can receive government assistance.
The Pope urged other nations to do more to help the Rohingya in Bangladesh.
“It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis, not only by working to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people,” the Pope said, “but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs.”
The Pope also praised Bangladesh’s tradition of tolerance.
“Bangladesh is known for the harmony that has traditionally existed between followers of the various religions,” he said.
Pope Francis on Friday met a group of Muslim Rohingya refugees here and referred to Myanmar’s persecuted minority by name for the first time on his Asia tour.
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” the Pope said after speaking to an interfaith audience in the Bangladeshi capital.
He refrained from using the term on his visit to Myanmar earlier this week. Myanmar does not regard Rohingya as an ethnic group and instead considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though some families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
They are also denied citizenship in Myanmar. Some 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the country following a military operation in late August.
The Pope had been criticised by rights groups for not using the term in Myanmar, whose military had been accused of “ethnic cleansing” by the UN. He had used the term before his visit.
After his speech in Dhaka, the Pope met a group of Rohingya refugees one-by-one, giving some of them blessings and listening to the stories of others, CNN reported.
“Your tragedy is very hard, very big. We give you space in our hearts,” the Pope said. “In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, those who hurt you, and especially of the world’s indifference, I ask for your forgiveness. Forgive us.”
“Many of you talked to me about the great heart of Bangladesh, which offered you refuge. Now I appeal to your heart to give us the forgiveness we are asking from you,” he told the group of refugees after meeting them.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke dismissed the idea that the Pope diminished his moral authority by avoiding a direct reference to the group during his visit to Myanmar, the first by a Pope to the Buddhist-majority country.
“People don’t expect him to solve impossible problems,” Burke said.
Activists argued that because the Pope did not use the term while he was in Myanmar, he was complicit in its strategy to delegitimise the Rohingya plight by questioning their name and identity.
“The term Rohingya is not a racial slur. It is a dignified term for more than two million people who are living across the world,” Europe-based Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin told CNN.
Earlier, the Pope ordained 16 priests at an outdoor Mass in Dhaka’s Suhrawardy Udyan park. (IANS / BGR PR)