Face-to-face with refugees, pope calls them by Rohingya name
Pope Francis has gotten into trouble before for ditching diplomatic protocol and calling a spade a spade, most famously when he labeled the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians a “genocide” from the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Francis took the hit — Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican in protest — for the sake of standing up for an oppressed people who were nearly wiped off the map a century ago.
Given the opportunity to do the same in Myanmar, where the military has launched what the U.N. says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority, Francis opted instead for dipPOPE lomatic expediency. He not only avoided the contested term “Rohingya” in his public remarks, he ignored Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades entirely and didn’t call out his hosts for launching it.
Human rights groups complained. Rohingya complained. Journalists and pundits asked if Francis’ legacy as a fearless crusader for the world’s most marginal — the poor, homeless, refugees and prisoners — wasn’t now in question.
By Friday, Francis’ heart won out.
In an emotional encounter with 16 Rohingya refugees, Francis said what he probably wanted to say from the start. His voice trembling after he greeted the men, women and children who had been forced to flee their homes in Myanmar for wretched camps in Bangladesh, Francis begged them for forgiveness for what they had endured and the “indifference of the world” to their plight.
“The presence of God today also is called ‘Rohingya,’” he told them.
And with that one word, Francis erased days of speculation that the tell-it-like-it-is, protocol-be-damned pope had sold out to the professional diplomats at the Vatican who were willing to deny a persecuted minority their very identity for the sake of global and local church politics.
Francis on Saturday explained his strategy: He said he would have never gotten his message across if he had launched into a public critique of the Rohingya offensive while on Burmese soil, saying doing so would have “slammed the door in their face” to any real dialogue.
“It’s true I didn’t have the pleasure of slamming the door in their face publicly with a denunciation,” Francis told reporters en route home to Rome. “But I had the satisfaction of dialogue, and letting the other side dialogue, and in this way the message arrived.”
The Vatican had defended Francis’ initial silence as necessary for the sake of “building bridges” with Myanmar, which only established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in May.
“Vatican diplomacy is not infallible,” spokesman Greg Burke told reporters in Yangon. “You can criticize what’s said, what’s not said. But the pope is not going to lose moral authority on this question here.”