Rohingya refugees and pope’s promise
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Pope Francis says he will “do everything possible” to help persecuted people of Myanmar

By Joe Torres, Rock Ronald Rozario and Stephan Uttom

Expectations are high among Rohingya refugees in makeshift camps in the town of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, after Pope Francis met with 16 of them in Dhaka, the country’s capital, when he visited there last fall.

On his way back to the Vatican, the pontiff admitted he wept during his Dec. 1 encounter with the Muslim refugees who have fled from religious persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” Pope Francis declared after meeting them.

Considered “stateless” by the Myanmar government, the Rohingya have faced increasing hostility in that predominantly Buddhist country, leading to brutality the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has condemned as “ethnic cleansing.” A major military crackdown in 2016 on Rohingya insurgents fighting for their human rights has ignited a mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar as they seek asylum in neighboring countries like Bangladesh.

“I have told the pope about what we have been through,” said Sayeda Khatun to, a Maryknoll-supported Catholic news agency based in Bangkok, Thailand. She said Pope Francis assured her “he would do everything possible to help us and to bring a peaceful solution” to the conflict in their homeland.

Foyez Ali Majhi, whose village was razed to the ground by soldiers, said the pope assured them he would try to help get justice for the Rohingya.

According to the refugees, Pope Francis promised to help facilitate an end to the persecution of the minority group, which numbers about 1.1 million. He also vowed to tell the stories of their persecution on the international stage as he reiterated his appeal for continuous support for those living in refugee camps.

Muhammad Abu Sayed, one of the leaders at the Nayapara refugee camp who met the pope, said people were eager to hear about their meeting. The 35-year-old from Maungdaw in Rakhine said the pope vowed to “work with world leaders and do whatever possible” to help the Rohingya.

“He said he would intervene so that we can live in peace in Burma (Myanmar),” Abu Sayed told outside his shelter in the camp. He said the Rohingya “have great faith in Pope Francis and they believed in what the pope has promised to do.”

A mother and her malnourished child are among Rohingya refugees lining up for aid in a camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. (CNS/C. McNaughton, Reuters/Bangladesh)

Abu Sayed arrived at the refugee camp on the outskirts of the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar in October after soldiers and extremist Rakhine Buddhists attacked his village and raped women. “We have lost our homes and we have nowhere to go,” he said. “We didn’t want to leave but we were forced to do so to save ourselves.”

Abu Sayed told the pope the Rohingya will only go back if they are granted citizenship and their security is assured. He said they demand justice for the rapes, torture and killings, and also want to be compensated for the destruction of their homes and property.

“If we are repatriated, we must be settled in our own village not in any other place,” he said. “All those responsible must be brought to justice. The mosques and madrasas or Islamic schools that were destroyed must be rebuilt,” he said. He said those living in refugee camps in Bangladesh are ready for repatriation, but it should be done under the monitoring of international groups because the Rohingya do not trust the government of Myanmar.

Pope Francis’ meeting with the Rohingya refugees was seen as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with those persecuted for their religion. “I wept. I tried to do it in a way that it couldn’t be seen. They wept too,” said the pontiff during his flight back to Rome on Dec. 3. “I told myself, ‘I cannot leave without saying a word to them.’ ”

“In the name of all who have persecuted you, who have harmed you, in the face of the world’s indifference, I ask for your forgiveness,” he told the refugees.

Pope Francis greets a man as he meets Rohingya refugees from Myanmar during an inter-religious and ecumenical meeting for peace in Dhaka, Bangladesh.(CNS/P. Haring/Bangladesh)

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported on Dec. 3 that 626,000 new refugees arrived in the camps in Cox’s Bazar between Aug. 25 and Dec. 2 last year. Bangladesh’s Social Services Division has identified 36,373 separated and unaccompanied minors among the refugees who have arrived since August.

The IOM said “the speed and scale of the influx has resulted in a critical humanitarian emergency” especially because the people who have arrived in Bangladesh came with very few possessions. The refugees rely on humanitarian assistance for food, and basic services are under severe strain due to the number of people.

Many shelters and tents, which have sprung up in recent weeks, have no water and sanitation facilities. The lack of roads limits access to these new camps, preventing aid from reaching people.

A version of this story moved earlier on the UCAN newswire

Featured Image: Pope Francis greets one of 16 Rohingya refugees he met during his recent visit to Bangladesh.(CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)


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Joe Torres, Rock Ronald Rozario and Stephan Uttom

The journalists report for the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) a Maryknoll-supported ministry that provides news, features and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.