DHAKA, Bangladesh: Pope calls for decisive measures

Pope Francis lays a wreath at the National Martyrs’ memorial of Bangladesh in Savar yesterday. Reuters


DHAKA (Agencies) – Pope Francis called yesterday for “decisive” international measures on the Rohingya refugee crisis as he began a visit to Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 of the Muslim minority have sought sanctuary after fleeing violence in Myanmar.

“It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis, not only by working to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people, but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs,” the pope said.

Pope Francis made his comments shortly after arriving from Myanmar, where he walked a diplomatic tightrope, staying away from allegations that the army is waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims despite pressure to publicly confront the issue.

He praised Bangladesh for taking in the refugees who have flooded across the border on an unprecedented scale since a fresh outbreak of violence in their native Rakhine state. But as in Myanmar, he refrained from using the word “Rohingya”, instead referring to “refugees from Rakhine state”.

Pope Francis had been urged not to use the name in Myanmar to avoid provoking hardline Buddhists and making the country’s Catholic community a target.

“None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps,” the pope said.

Today, he is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees  who have fled from Myanmar.

“He did not even pronounce the word ‘Rohingya’ in Myanmar,” HT Imam, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political adviser, said yesterday. “Here we would be looking forward to what he says.”

The Vatican on Wednesday said the pope’s moral authority was unblemished by his failure to refer to the persecuted Myanmar Muslim minority by the name they chose to identify themselves by, and his mere presence drew attention to the refugee crisis. But a Vatican news conference in Yangon to wrap up the visit only served to highlight the diplomatic minefield that the issue had presented for Pope Francis.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the pope’s decision not to refer to the Rohingya did not take away from anything he had said in the past – he had mentioned them and their suffering before his Myanmar visit – but added that Vatican diplomacy was “not infallible” and others were entitled to their views.

Although Pope Francis avoided the term his calls for justice, human rights and respect were widely seen as applicable to the Rohingya.

In Bangladesh, several Rohingya said they hoped the pope would use his influence to help them go back to Myanmar and to get rights.

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an accord last week on terms for the return of Rohingya, though rights groups have expressed doubts about Myanmar following through on the agreement and have called for independent observers for any repatriation. There are concerns about protection for Rohingya from further violence and about a path to resolving their legal status – most are stateless – and whether they would be allowed to return to their old homes.

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