Pope Francis has met with a group of Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh, asking them for “forgiveness” in the name of the international community as well as those who have “hurt” them.
In an emotional meeting in Dhaka, the Pope also referenced the word “Rohingya” in public for the first time since he began his trip to Asia. Advisers had deemed it too controversial for him to do so in Burma itself, where Rohingyas are referred to by the government as “Bengalis”.
Meeting on Friday with 16 Rohingya refugees, Pope Francis vowed not to “look away” from their plight. “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” he said.
“In the name of all of those who have persecuted you, hurt you, I ask forgiveness. I appeal to your large hearts to give us the forgiveness that we are asking.”
The 16 Rohingya – 12 men, two women and two young girls – travelled to Bangladesh‘s capital, Dhaka, from Cox’s Bazar, the district bordering Burma where refugee camps are overflowing with more than 620,000 Rohingya who have fled what the UN says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Burmese troops.
One of the women told reporters before the meeting that she had been abused by the Burmese army.
“Myanmar military captured me and some other women, tortured us,” she told Reuters, using another name for Burma, as she held her young daughter close. “I still bleed, there is pain in the abdomen, my back hurts, I get headaches. Medicines have not helped much.
“I will share my pain with him,” she added.
They met Francis in the archbishop’s house during an interreligious prayer for peace.
The pontiff had previously been criticised for failing to mention the Rohingya directly while in Burma.
But the Vatican defended his silence, saying Francis wanted to “build bridges” with the predominantly Buddhist nation, while admitting that his efforts at diplomacy were not “infallible”.
Rohingya Muslims have faced persecution and discrimination in Burma for decades and are denied citizenship, even though many families have lived there for generations.
The UN has said the crisis appears to be a textbook case of “ethnic cleansing”.
Their plight worsened dramatically in August, when the army began what it called clearance operations in Rakhine state following attacks on security positions by a group of Rohingya militants.
Rohingya who are living in camps in Bangladesh have described indiscriminate attacks by Burma security forces and Buddhist mobs, including killings, rapes and the torching of entire villages.
Abdul Hamid, the Bangladesh President, accused Burma’s military of having committed “ruthless atrocities” against the Muslims and, in a speech to Francis, demanded international help to return them safely to Burma.
“Our people welcomed them with open arms, sharing food, shelter and other basic needs,” he said. “Now, it is our shared responsibility to ensure for them a safe, sustainable and dignified return to their own home and integration with the social, economic and political life of Myanmar.”
Burma says it has cleared its army of committing any atrocities against the Rohingya after the results of an internal military investigation were published earlier in November.
Additional reporting by AP
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