IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Jeffery
By Paul Jeffrey
YANGON, Myanmar (CNS) — When Pope Francis
visits Myanmar in late November, church leaders will be listening nervously to
his every word, specifically hoping they don’t hear the R-word. Any mention by
name of the Rohingya, a Muslim group widely hated in this predominantly
Buddhist country, will have widespread implications here.
“The pope’s visit is keeping us very
anxious, as many things can go wrong. A wrong word from the Holy Father can
plunge the country into chaos,” said Father Mariano Soe Naing, communications director for
“If the Holy Father in his speech evens
mentions the Rohingya, the nationalist groups will respond. This is a historic
problem, and we need a lot of time to solve this problem. We cannot just say
this or that. That is the reason why Aung San Suu Kyi cannot say anything,” he said, referring to
the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian government, who has been criticized
internationally for failing to speak out against the military’s actions against
Rohingya in northern Rakhine
Father Soe Naing told Catholic News Service
that while the bishops support democracy and back Aung San Suu Kyi, they
understand her silence on the Rohingya.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has no right to
comment on anything. The military has the authority to decide everything,”
he said. “The whole world wants to criticize her, wants her to fight
against the military in favor of full democracy. But that’s a fight she cannot
win. She might have the force of the people behind her, but the bloodshed would
be terrible. The blood would flow like rivers in this country. The military is
not ready to give up easily. She knows that well.”
The Asian church news agency ucanews.com
reported the country’s Catholic bishops told the papal nuncio in June that they
would prefer Pope Francis avoid mentioning the Rohingya by name.
More than a million Rohingya live in
Myanmar, but they are widely seen by the government and the majority Buddhist
population as foreigners, and they are frequently referred to as “Bengalis.”
On Aug. 25, Muslim separatists launched a
series of attacks on government security forces in Rakhine. The Myanmar
military launched a fierce counterattack. On Oct. 18, Amnesty International
issued a report blaming Myanmar’s military for a “targeted campaign of
widespread and systematic murder, rape and burning” in Rohingya
communities in the region.
More than half a million Rohingya refugees
have fled across the border into neighboring Bangladesh, where UNICEF, in an
Oct. 20 report, said conditions resemble “hell on earth,”
particularly for refugee children.
Oct. 24, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement setting up a framework for
the return of the Rohingya. Aid workers on the ground doubt it will make much
immediate difference in the flow of Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh.
Despite the caution urged by bishops here,
Pope Francis has mentioned the Rohingya by name.
would like to express all of my closeness to them,” he said Aug. 27,
asking pilgrims at the Vatican to pray for “the Lord to save them, to raise
up men and women of goodwill to help them, that they may be given full rights.”
Father Soe Naing said the pope’s comments,
just two days after the separatist attacks, created discontent in Myanmar.
“When the Holy Father said that we
should pray for the Rohingya, people were really angry, because it was Burmese
police posts that were attacked, and people died. The pope didn’t mention the
terrorist attacks when he asked people to pray for the Rohingya. Why did he
leave out the rest of the people who suffered in this country?” Father Soe
“Our people do not want to hear the word
‘Rohingya.’ We are not allowed to use it in our country. If the Holy Father
comes and begins to speak about this conflict, then the nationalists may rise
up against him. That is our fear. But we believe that the Holy Father knows
what to say and what not to set say. We trust in his wisdom,” the priest said.
Win Tun Kyi, director of Karuna Mission Social Solidarity,
the aid and development agency of the Myanmar Catholic Church, downplayed the
negative repercussions of Pope Francis’ venture into Myanmar’s internal strife.
“When the pope said something about the
Rohingya, some of the Buddhist nationalists got very angry. But people tend to
forget after two or three weeks. There are new things to get excited about on
Facebook and in the media,” he said.
Words have tremendous power in a county
where people still argue whether they should call themselves Burma, a name
dating to British colonial rule, or Myanmar, which was adapted by the country’s
military in 1989 in response to pro-democracy demonstrations.
Win Tun Kyi suggests Pope Francis follow the
lead of former U.S. President Barack Obama who, during a visit in 2012, avoided
taking sides by almost always using the phase “this country.”
“Politicians are good at these things,
and I hope that our pope will be sensitive in his public statements,” he
A Protestant leader said the pope’s visit would
affect more than just Catholics.
“In general, people don’t know the
difference between Catholics and Protestants, so when the pope comes it will
not just benefit the Catholics, but the whole Christian community. And if
something goes wrong, it is not only the Catholics who will suffer,” said Patrick Loo Tone, president of the
Myanmar Council of Churches.
“Most Buddhists don’t trust the
Muslims, and the Muslims don’t trust the Buddhists. For the time being, though,
both parties trust us Christians to a certain extent. But if we do or say
something that appears to favor the Muslims, then the Buddhists will become
more suspicious and uneasy about us. We have to be very careful about what we
say, or we Christians could be the next target.”
Despite the political traps that await Pope Francis
in this country, Loo Tone says non-Catholics are enthusiastically playing a
supportive role in welcoming the pontiff.
“There are tens of thousands of
Catholics who want to come see and hear the pope, because it’s the first time
that the pope has come here. They have asked us to help, and we’re opening our
churches and other buildings to offer hospitality. And many Buddhists,
including some of the big monasteries, are also offering their spaces. Some
might see the pope’s visit as possibly negative, but I believe God will make it
a positive experience for everyone.”
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