Pope Francis defends Rohingya silence after Asia trip

Pope Francis has told reporters he believes he got his message across to Myanmar’s leaders despite not using the term “Rohingya”  during a four-day trip to the fledgling democratic Asian state.

Speaking on his return to the Vatican on Saturday, the pontiff insisted he had been firm with the country’s military and civilian leaders in private meetings, despite being advised by local Catholic authorities not to speak publicly about the plight of Rohingya Muslims, for fear it could spark a backlash.

Francis said he chose instead to speak in general terms about human rights in public, and called on Myanmar’s Buddhist leaders to overcome “prejudice and hatred.”

That way, he said, he could speak more frankly in private, adding he was “very, very satisfied” with his meetings with Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s powerful military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing.

“For me, the most important thing is that the message gets through, to try to say things one step at a time and listen to the responses,” Francis said.

“I knew that if in the official speeches I would have used that word, they would have closed the door in our faces. But [in public] I described situations, rights, said that no one should be excluded, [the right to] citizenship, in order to allow myself to go further in the private meetings.”

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Pope wept on hearing plight of Rohingya

Speaking aboard the plane returning to Rome from his Asia trip, the pope revealed he had cried when he met a group of Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh on Friday, who had fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Francis addressed the Rohingya issue head-on in Bangladesh, telling those refugees he met: “In the name of all those who have persecuted you, who have harmed you, in the face of the world’s indifference, I ask for your forgiveness.”

He told the crowd that God’s presence was within them and they should be respected.

The exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh of about 625,000 people followed a military crackdown in response to Rohingya militant attacks on an army base and police posts in late August.

Residents have said scores of Rohingya villages were burnt to the ground, people were killed and women were raped. The military have denied accusations of ethnic cleansing by the United Nations.

Myanmar’s leaders do not consider the Rohingya a distinct ethnic group, regarding them instead as trespassers from Bangladesh.

In November, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement to begin repatriating refugees, but rights groups say they are concerned about plans to house them in camps away from their former homes — many of which have been destroyed.

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mm/cmk (AFP, AP, Reuters)