DHAKA — Pope Francis landed in Bangladesh on Thursday after a diplomatically sensitive trip to mainly Buddhist Myanmar, where he made no direct reference to the plight of Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh in their hundreds of thousands.
The pope’s trip to mostly Muslim Bangladesh is likely to be less sensitive though his words will be closely watched following his decision not to use the word “Rohingya” in public during his four-day Myanmar trip to avoid a diplomatic incident with the country some have accused of ethnic cleansing.
On Friday, the pope is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees from among the roughly 625,000 who have fled to Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar since the end of August.
“He did not even pronounce the word ‘Rohingya’ in Myanmar,” H.T. Imam, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political adviser, told Reuters on Thursday. “Here we would be looking forward to what he says.”
Bangladeshi President Abdul Hamid welcomed the pope at Dhaka airport. Hamid and the pope were both due to make speeches later in the day and to raise the refugee crisis.
The Vatican on Wednesday said the pope’s moral authority was unblemished by his failure to refer to the persecuted Myanmar Muslim minority by the name they chose to identify themselves by, and his mere presence drew attention to the refugee crisis.
But a Vatican news conference in the Myanmar city of Yangon to wrap up the visit only served to highlight the diplomatic minefield that the issue had presented for Francis.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the pope’s decision not to refer to the Rohingya did not take away from anything he had said in the past — he had mentioned them and their suffering before his Myanmar visit — but added that Vatican diplomacy was “not infallible” and others were entitled to their views.
The exodus of Rohingya people from Rakhine state to the southern tip of Bangladesh was sparked by a military crackdown in response to Rohingya militant attacks on an army base and police posts on Aug. 25.
Scores of Rohingya villages were burnt to the ground, and refugees arriving in Bangladesh told of killings and rapes.
The United Nations has accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and last week Washington said the military’s campaign included “horrendous atrocities” aimed at “ethnic cleansing”.
Myanmar’s military has denied accusations of murder, rape and forced displacement. The government blames the crisis on the Rohingya militants, whom it has condemned as terrorists.
Many people in Myanmar regard the largely stateless Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are excluded from the 135 “national races” recognized by law, and even using the name is considered inflammatory.
Although Francis avoided the term, following the advice of local Church officials who feared it could turn Myanmar’s military and government against minority Christians, his calls for justice, human rights and respect were widely seen as applicable to the Rohingya.
Francis held talks in Myanmar with government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate and longtime champion of democracy who in 2016 formed Myanmar’s first civilian government in half a century.
In Bangladesh, several Rohingya told Reuters they hoped the pope would use his influence to help them go back to Myanmar and to get rights.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an accord last week on terms for the return of Rohingya, though rights groups have expressed doubts about Myanmar following through on the agreement and have called for independent observers for any repatriation.
There are concerns about protection for Rohingya from further violence if and when they go home, and about a path to resolving their legal status — most are stateless — and whether they would be allowed to return to their old homes.
Bangladesh hopes the pope’s intervention can help, the prime minister’s adviser said.
“The general perception is that he is a man of peace and he has world influence,” Imam said.
“The pope internationally has his own image and that is something that could perhaps influence events.”