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At the end of the third day of Pope Francis’ trip to Myanmar, the country’s bishops held a press conference in Rangoon. In their company, Greg Burke, director of the Holy See’s Press Office, answered questions about the pope’s stance on the Rohingya crisis.
Although the pope is taking some criticism for not publicly using the term Rohingya in reference to the group suffering abuse from the Myanmar army, he made this decision based on the recommendations of the local clergy, Burke said.
Francis has on other occasions used the term, but was requested by Church leaders in Myanmar to refrain from the use of the term during the trip. The Holy Father will meet with some of the refugees during the second leg of his trip, when he is in Bangladesh.
Pope defends Rohingya Muslims ahead of Myanmar trip
Rohingya is a contested term because it refers to the history of the people being persecuted, with many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar considering the Rohingya as Bengalis, present illegally in Myanmar. The Rohingya, however, say they have been in the region for centuries. The history of their migration is complex, intertwined with British rule of the area.
In any case, the fact that the Pontiff is visiting the country during a period of tension is in itself “positive,” Burke said.
Before the trip, Cardinal Charles Bo and the bishops of Myanmar had advised the pope to be cautious about using the word “Rohingya” to refer to the Muslims of Rakhine State. They considered this important in order not to increase tensions in the country, and to preserve the fragile democratic overtures of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Diplomatically, the pope is not “all-powerful”
Moreover, added the director of the Press Office, this trip was not conceived with the sole objective of supporting refugees, as was the case with the pope’s trip to the Greek island of Lesbos in April of 2016. In addition, although the goal of the diplomacy of the Holy See is to build bridges, that does not make it “infallible.” The pope is a moral authority, but he is not “all-powerful,” Burke commented.
For Father Mariano Soe Naing, spokesman for the bishops for the pope’s visit, there is no “easy solution” to the refugee problem. The stakes are greater that it may seem; this crisis concerns “the fate of the whole nation.” This appears an indirect way of saying that the army is using the crisis to regain power in the country.
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The Church’s support for Aung San Suu Kyi
The bishops also defended the Church’s support for Aung San Suu Kyi, even though she has been criticized for her relative silence regarding the Rohingya crisis. “Thousands of people have died to help the democratic transition,” said Father Soe-Naing. “We can not betray the blood shed in this fight,” abandoning the person who embodies it.
As for the vice president of the conference of bishops, Bishop John Hsane Hgyi, he added that Aung San Suu Kyi “suffered and sacrificed for years not for herself, but for her country.” The prelate wanted the press to search for “reliable information” and study the reality and history of the country.
Finally, Burke confirmed that the change of date of the pope’s private audience with the army chief on November 27 was somewhat unfortunate. It would have been better if the pontiff had first met with the “official” government. However, the army made the request, and the pope accepted it.
Disappearance of a priest in Bangladesh?
The head of the Holy See’s Press Office also said that the Holy See was awaiting confirmation of the disappearance of a priest in Bangladesh, venue of the second leg of the papal trip, which starts November 30.
According to the Bangladeshi newspaper Daily Star, Father Walter William Rosario, 40, disappeared on November 27 in the town of Bonpara, as he was heading for a nearby church.
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