Myanmar’s Religious Leaders Judge Papal Visit a Success

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 1 December 2017

YANGON—While the international community is disappointed with Pope Francis’ failure to use the word “Rohingya” to underline his criticism of the crackdown on the Muslim group in western Myanmar, interfaith leaders in the country described the papal visit—which ended on Thursday—as “successful” and “significant”.

The pope was in Myanmar for a four-day visit this week, becoming the first pontiff to tour the Buddhist-majority country where only 1 percent of the 42 million population is Roman Catholic. Francis is now in Bangladesh.

During the trip, Francis met with the country’s civil, military and religious leaders and celebrated a mass in Yangon, which drew hundreds of thousands of the country’s Catholic faithful. To the dismay of human rights groups in the West, he didn’t use the word “Rohingya” at any of his appearances.

Father Soe Naing, who served as information officer for the papal visit, told The Irrawaddy he was very satisfied with the visit.

“I have to say the trip was a success. I really thank everyone involved in making it happen,” he said.

The priest said he believed the pope based his decision not to refer to the Rohingya by name on his conscience, rather than outside pressure.

“Before the trip, he had a meeting with Kofi Annan. So he seemed to be informed about the situation on the ground and based his decision on whether to use the term on his own judgment — not outside warnings,” he added.

The Vatican on Wednesday defended Pope Francis’ decision not to use the word “Rohingya” in public during his visit to Myanmar, saying his moral authority was unblemished and that his mere presence drew attention to the refugee crisis, Reuters reported.

Prior the trip, Pope Francis was urged by Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo and others to avoid using the term “Rohingya” during his visit so as not to upset the host country or trigger a backlash against Christians. Myanmar’s government and military and the majority of its people reject the term and instead refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying they are immigrants from Bangladesh.

Even in comments he made Thursday in Bangladesh, which is now giving shelter to more than 600,000 Rohingya, the pope declined to use the term, referring to “refugees from Rakhine State” while calling for decisive measures to resolve the political problems that caused the mostly Muslim refugees in Myanmar to flee to Bangladesh. He urged countries to help Dhaka deal with the crisis.

Myawaddy Mingyi Sayadaw, one of the senior Buddhist figures who met Francis on Tuesday, said the papal visit was a major force for religious harmony between Buddhists and Christians in Myanmar.

“In the past, Christians felt discriminated against, as they are a minority here. But the fact that hundreds of thousands of Catholics turned out to welcome the pope showed the world they have freedom in the Buddhist-dominated country of which they are a part,” the Buddhist monk said.

While in the country’s capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday, Francis said in his address to government authorities, civil society groups and members of the diplomatic corps that “religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building.”

U Aye Lwin, a Muslim interfaith leader who is also a member of the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission, said the visit was significant as the Pope didn’t only talk about his own faith, despite being the leader of the world’s Roman Catholic community.

“He beautifully warned us that peace comes only when there is diversity, loving kindness and justice in conflict,” U Aye Lwin said, adding that the message offered spiritual encouragement to those who work for peace.

The Muslim leader said he was really impressed by the seating arrangement at the mass. On the orders of the Catholic Bishop Conference of Myanmar, the front row at the mass was reserved for poor people who have been involved in volunteer work for the Church.

“It signals that we should care for those in need and who are suffering,” he said.

Asked about the pope’s avoidance of the term “Rohingya,” U Aye Lwin said he thought the pope had just dropped it to avoid controversy.

“To him, I don’t think nomenclature matters as much as root causes,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the Pope’s comments in Dhaka were made on Friday. In fact they were made on Thursday.