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Pope Francis and the Rohingya: “I cried. I tried to hide it.”


The Holy Father explains why he didn't use the term "Rohingya" while in Myanmar.

On his return from Bangladesh and Myanmar this weekend, Pope Francis gave his customary in-flight press conference. His answer to the first question, regarding his use of the term Rohingya, revealed the pope’s philosophy on communication.

The term Rohingya, as it refers to the provenance of this persecuted people, is highly charged. In Myanmar, where it is claimed the Rohingya are illegal refugees, the pope refrained from using the term, upon the advice of local Church leaders, including Cardinal Charles Bo, the archbishop of Yangon.

But the Holy Father’s willingness to avoid the term while in Myanmar (he’s used it openly before), in fact speaks to how deeply he is moved by the plight of this abused and suffering people. If his communication choice wasn’t enough to bring that message home, then surely his tears were.

The pope revealed: “Your question is ‘what did I feel.’ In that moment I cried. I tried to hide it. They cried, too.”

The pope was asked if he had any regrets for not referring to the Rohingya with this term while in Myanmar.

This gave the pope the opportunity to both remind the journalist that he has used the term on a handful of occasions, well before the trip, and to give insight into his communication philosophy.

“Your question is interesting because it brings me to reflect on how I seek to communicate,” Francis said. “For me, the most important thing is that the message arrives and for this I seek to say things, step by step, and listen to the answers so that the message may arrive.”

He contrasted this with the example of an adolescent who might “say what they think but slamming the door in the face of the other … and the message doesn’t arrive.”

Francis stressed that he was “intent that this message would arrive,” and thus saw that it was better to avoid the term in his official speeches in Myanmar.

“If I would have said that word, I would have slammed a door in the face,” he said. “But I described it, the situations, the rights, no one excluded, the citizenship, to allow myself in the private conversations to go beyond.”

The Holy Father met privately with the leader of Myanmar’s military on his first day in the country. He also met with other authorities, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

“I was very, very satisfied with the talks that I was able to have, because it is true that I haven’t, let’s say it this way, had the pleasure of slamming the door in a face, publicly, a denouncement, but I did have the satisfaction of dialoguing and letting the other speak and to say my part and in that way the message arrived,” he said.

The Bishop of Rome went on to describe how much of the meeting with the Rohingya in Bangladesh was unplanned: “I knew that I would meet the Rohingya. I didn’t know where or how, but this was the condition of the trip and they were preparing the ways.”

Francis praised Bangladeshis for what is implied in receiving the Rohingya refugees: “What Bangladesh does for them is big, an example of welcoming. A small, poor country that has received 700,000. I think of the countries that close the doors. We must be grateful for the example that they’ve given us,” he said.

He went on to explain how the plan was that the refugees would only greet him, but without being given time to speak, but how in the moment, he requested that they be allowed to stay.

“Then, having listened to them one by one with an interpreter who spoke their language, I began to feel things inside, but (I said to myself), ‘I cannot let them go without saying something.’ I asked for the microphone. And I began to speak. I don’t remember what I said. I know that at a certain point I asked forgiveness, twice. I don’t remember.”

“In that moment,” Francis continued, “I cried. I tried to hide it. They cried, too. And then I thought how we were in an interreligious meeting and the leaders of the other religious traditions were there. ‘Why don’t you come too?’ [I asked the other religious leaders]. These were all of our Rohingya. They greeted the Rohingya and I didn’t know what more to say. I watched them. I greeted them. And I thought, all of us have spoken, the religious leaders, but one of you must say a prayer and one who I believe was an imam or let’s say a ‘cleric’ of their religion, made that prayer. They also prayed there with us, and seeing all that happened and the whole path, I felt that the message had arrived.”


Read the rest of the transcription and translation of the press conference from Catholic News Agency, here.

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