Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar is not just a sign of international solidarity with the persecuted Rohingya Muslims: It is also part of the desperate fight against fanaticism and war driven by religious ideologies. For the abuse of religion for political ends is fueling conflict not only in Myanmar, but worldwide.
It is ironic that this should occur in Myanmar of all places, a country that has suffered more than 50 years of military dictatorship. A country, moreover, that is governed by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — and the military.
Only 10 years ago, tens of thousands of Buddhist monks were protesting against the military regime in Rangoon. Today, many of them back the military. The nationalist monk U Thuseitta told the press: “I believe the military when they say that the Rohingya are setting fire to their own houses.”
Soft-spoken preachers of hate
In this tense situation, Pope Francis now wants to appeal to the consciences of the radical religious leaders. He wants to speak out against religious fanaticism, which often supports the interests of the state, as it does in Myanmar, where Buddhism is the official religion. And he wants to prevent another religious war from breaking out in Myanmar and the neighboring countries, where there are already conflicts between Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus.
Since as far back as the 18th century, Buddhist fundamentalists in Myanmar have defended the “purity” of their teachings against influences from abroad. Today, they claim to be defending their homeland against “Islamic infiltration,” and they receive support for their efforts from Buddhist communities in Thailand and Sri Lanka.
Islamist fundamentalists in the region, in their turn, are exploiting the persecution of the Rohingya to their own ends. According to a study by the International Crisis Group, militant Muslims mingled with the refugees from Myanmar, following instructions from Saudi Arabia. The report said the militant believers brought their Islamist state ideology to Myanmar, where a comparatively moderate form of Islam has prevailed up to now.
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Why is the pope so confident that anyone will pay attention to his visit in such an explosive conflict situation? Why should the mainly Buddhist population be interested in the words of the head of the Roman Catholic Church?
The answer is that the pope will be reaching out to the people of Myanmar in terms of their everyday lives — in other words, by working on their still fresh memories of the many years of military dictatorship. When he speaks about the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, many people, including Christians, will feel he is talking to them.
There have been protests in Indonesia in front of the Myanmar embassy over the treatment of the Rohingya
Catholics, who make up around 1 percent Myanmar’s population, were persecuted for decades under the military government. As early as 1965, for example, church-run schools and hospitals in what was then Burma were expropriated by the Revolutionary Council. Now, they are contributing to the national process of reconciliation between the different ethnicities in the country. Since Myanmar opened up politically in 2010, church-run aid organizations have been allowed to work again, and priests can be trained.
In view of this years-long history of persecution, it is all too understandable that cardinals and bishops in Myanmar have warned Francis not to mention the word “Rohingya”: Their fear of renewed repression and of new outbreaks of hate following the pope’s departure is simply too deep-seated.
Religious leaders under a responsibility
It is doubtful that Francis will heed their advice. As a politically engaged pope, he is trying once more to act as a peacemaker, even in this delicate situation. All doors are open to the “bishop from the other side of the world,” as he called himself after his election in March 2013. He will be meeting Myanmar’s army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, as well as the head of the government, Aung San Suu Kyi.
He will also be speaking with Buddhist monks at an interreligious peace meeting. This meeting will play a key role in the current situation. For a short time, it will enable religious leaders who are campaigning for peace, to garner more attention than fanatical hate-preachers. It shows that reconciliation and understanding can be stronger than destruction and retribution. For it is not governments that will prevent religious radicalization, but the religious leaders themselves. And it is time for them to take action.