Pope Francis on Friday apologised for the “indifference” of the world towards the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya community as he referred them by their ethnic name publically in Bangladesh for the first time during his historic tour to Asia.
Over 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh following a crackdown by the Myanmar military in response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants.
Francis, who is on a three-day visit to Bangladesh, met a group of 16 Rohingya refugees who were brought to Dhaka from their makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar, bordering Myanmar.
In a moving encounter, Francis blessed them, held their hands and intently listened to their heart-rending tales of escape from the Buddhist-majority nation, in an apparent show of public solidarity towards Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades.
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” the the 80-year-old pontiff told the group.
He also apologised for the “indifference” of the world towards Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades.
“I ask for your forgiveness for the indifference of the world,” Francis told a group of Rohingyas at the archbishop’s palace in Dhaka.
“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,” he added.
“Let us not turn away” from it, he further said.
This is the first time Francis used the term “Rohingya” during his South Asia tour.
The Pope had been criticised by rights groups for not using the term in Myanmar, whose military has been accused of ethnic cleansing by the UN. He had used the term before his visit.
Myanmar’s government rejects the term Rohingya, labelling the community “Bengalis”. It says they migrated illegally from Bangladesh so should not be listed as one of the country’s ethnic groups.
Francis also met Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Vatican embassy in the capital while the premier’s press secretary Ihsanul Karim said they held a 20-minute private conversation. Hasina was accompanied by her family members.
Francis also joined the interfaith conference of Muslim majority Bangladesh’s Islamic scholars alongside Hindu, Buddhist and Christian clerics and civil society figures on the second day of his three-day tour.
The interfaith meeting appeared significant as Francis frequently used such events to demand that religion must never be used to justify violence as Bangladesh, which has experienced a series of attacks blamed on Muslim militants in recent years.
Earlier in the morning, Francis traded his Popemobile for a rickshaw and waved to crowds from the passenger seat of the pedicab to go to a park where he led an open–air mass.
He also ordained 16 priests at the park. The service was joined by over 80,000 Catholic Christians, who comprises only 0.02 per cent of Bangladesh’s 160 million population.
Francis arrived in Bangladesh on Thursday to a red carpet reception. He was received by President Abdul Hamid.
“It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis,” the Pope told a civic reception hosted by Bangladesh President Hamid at his Bangabhaban presidential palace.
Francis said the international measures should not only be limited in spearheading efforts to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people, “but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs”.
“None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps,” he said, without using the word Rohingya.