AS Pope Francis boarded a plane on Sunday night to begin his trip to South Asia, he was no doubt weighing up a moral and political dilemma.
On his first visit to Burma (Myanmar), the quandary that has the world guessing is whether he will choose to use the term “Rohingya” to identify the persecuted Muslim minority in Rakhine State.
It’s a loaded and politically charged term in the Buddhist-majority nation, so much so that the pope’s own cardinal has warned the Holy See from using it as it could stall the efforts of reconciliation before they have even begun.
“It is a very contested term, and the military and government and the public would not like him to express it,” Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Burma told Catholic news website Crux in an interview in which he himself avoided using the word.
“If he doesn’t use it, the international community will say something,” Bo acknowledged. “If he does use it, then it could be very bad for the military, the government and the Buddhist community.”
More than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled across the border to Bangladesh since Aug 25, when a new outbreak of fighting began between Burma’s military and armed militants in Rakhine State. The United Nations has called the clearing operations a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and accused the military of massacres, systematic gang-rape of Rohingya women, and burning of villages. Burma’s government has repeatedly denied the allegations, blaming the destruction on militant insurgency.
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Francis will spend three days in Myanmar before he travels to Bangladesh on Thursday, where he’s expected to meet at least a small group of Rohingya refugees while in the capital Dhaka. The last pope to visit Bangladesh was Pope John Paul II in 1986.
Francis has defined his papacy by his frequent denunciations of injustices committed against refugees, and he would be expected to speak out strongly against the Rohingya plight. But he is also the guest of Burma’s government and must look out for the well-being of his own small flock, a minority of just 659,000 Catholics in a nation of 51 million.
In the past, he has not shied away from using the term, calling on Catholics across the globe to “pray for our Rohingya brethren” after the most recent wave of violence. He has also called the Rohingya ”good people” who were being “tortured and killed.” But whether he will choose to use it now is still unknown. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said in a briefing last week that Rohingya was “not a prohibited word,” but, “we’ll see together” whether Francis decides to use it.
Anti-Rohingya sentiment remains rife in Burma where the ethnic minority is widely considered to be illegal immigrants, trespassers and terrorists, despite having lived in the country for generations. The animosity towards the group has prompted a number of mass exoduses to surrounding countries since the 1970s.
When Burma became independent from British rule in 1948, the Rohingya were able to participate in the political life of the country, obtaining statehood status for Rakhine in 1974. But in a wave of violence against illegal immigration, the first mass exodus to Bangladesh was triggered in 1977.
Many Rohingya returned home a year later, but in 1982 the military regime stripped them of their citizenship rights and ethnic minority status. In 1994, it began refusing to issue birth certificates to babies born of Rohingya parents.
Even two decades later, after the military government finally allowed elections and long-term political prisoner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s de facto leader, the Rohingya were excluded from the country’s census in 2014.
There is a risk that Francis’ outspoken approach to the crisis could prompt problems for the Christian minority who themselves have been victims of persecution at the hand of Buddhist nationalism in the past. Forced labour, forced conversion to Buddhism and a ban on the import of bibles occurred under military rule in Chin State where 90 percent of the residents are Christians.
The pope “risks either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” the Rev. Thomas Reese, a commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote last week in the Religion News Service.
The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and editor of AsiaNews, an organization based in Rome that closely follows the church in Asia, told The New York Times that the pope’s previous use of the word Rohingya made Christians in Burma “very very worried.”
He also said the use of the word could play into the hands of Muslim extremists who have taken the plight of the Rohingya as an excuse to wage a holy war.
“The word is politicised and monopolised by an Islamic idea,” he said.
Whether the pope will choose to use the laden word remains to be seen, but his six-day trip is shaping up to be a political, sectarian and religious minefield that many believe poses a no-win scenario for the politically-savvy pontiff.