Pope Francis defends right of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims to ‘live their faith’

Francis issues stinging criticism of Burma government in unprepared section of weekly address

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The Independent Online

Pope Francis has issued a strong defence of the right of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims to ‘live their faith’, and criticised the country’s government for an alleged campaign of persecution.

In a stinging attack on the Burmese regime, the Pope said the Rohingyas have been tortured and killed “simply because they want to live their culture and their Muslim faith”.

Burma denies carrying out atrocities against the Muslim minority, consisting of around 1.2 million people in the northern Rakhine state who have been refused citizenship of any country.

Pope Francis made his comments during an unprepared section of his weekly address. He appeared to be referring to a UN rights office “flash report”, issued last week, detailing allegations of abuse, rape and murder of Rohingyas at the hands of the Burmese military.

The Rohingyas were "good people", Pope Francis said. "They are not Christians, they are peaceful people, and they are our brothers and sisters."

He then urged the 7,000 people present in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall to join him in prayer for all migrants who have been exploited and humiliated, and in particular for the Rohingyas who, he said, "are being chased from Myanmar and are fleeing from one place to another because no one wants them". 

The government in Burma is severely restricting access to the state where the persecution of Rohingyas is allegedly taking place, meaning it is difficult to verify any reports coming out of the region.

But the UN has previously dubbed the Rohingyas, who are also denied access to university education and in 2013 were hit with a two-child policy, as “the most oppressed people on Earth”.

"Pope Francis' comments should serve as a wake up call to the international community," Charu Lata Hogg, an associate fellow with the Asia Programme at Chatham House, told The Independent.

"Despite the scathing UN report and the stream of NGO reporting on the plight of the Rohingyas, there doesn't seem to have been much international condemnation. 

"Strong political leverages need to be exercised to stop this egregious assault on a stateless people." 

Refugees welcome Pope Francis

The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had been documenting the allegations against the Burmese authorities by speaking to Rohingyas who have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh.

And last week the OHCHR took the rare move of rushing out a report, before it had completed all its planned research, such was the scale and urgency of the crisis it perceived.

Linnea Arvidsson, one of the four UN workers who interviewed Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and drew up the report, told The Independent at the time that she had never before seen such a “shocking” situation.

“I’ve never encountered a situation like this, where you do 204 interviews and every single person you speak with has a traumatic story, whether their house was burnt, they’ve been raped or a relative was killed or taken away,” said Ms Arvidsson. 

“In many cases we were the first people, other than their close family, who these people had spoken to. They would break down. Women and even grown men would be crying.

“The women cried when they spoke of being raped, or seeing their children being killed. Men cried when they related how their houses had been burnt, and their concerns over how they would now be able to support their families.

“It’s very rare for there to be such a high prevalence of violence. And when you think we spoke to just 204 people of a total of 88,000 who have fled the area, it’s really scary to think of the total numbers.”

In his Wednesday address, Pope Francis also repeated his appeal for people to build bridges of understanding instead of walls.

The comments are seen as being his first, albeit indirect, criticism since the Trump administration tried to impose a travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries. 

The Pope dedicated his catechism lesson to the general Christian precepts of hope and forgiveness in forging peace. 

He said: “In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges. To not respond to evil with evil. To defeat evil with good, the offence with forgiveness. 

“A Christian would never say ‘you will pay for that’. Never. That is not a Christian gesture. An offence you overcome with forgiveness. To live in peace with everyone.”

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