Pope Francis asks Rohingya victims for their forgiveness
Pope Francis used the word "Rohingya" during an emotional meeting with refugees in Bangladesh yesterday, having studiously avoided the term on his earlier visit to Myanmar.
"The presence of God today is also called Rohingya," the pontiff said after meeting 16 Rohingya people who had been forced to flee their homes in Myanmar and cross into neighbouring Bangladesh.
"Your tragedy is very hard, very great, but it has a place in our hearts. In the name of all those who have persecuted you, who have harmed you, in the face of the world's indifference, I ask for your forgiveness," he said, grasping their hands and listening to their stories.
He listened intently as each member of the group, which included 12 men and four women, including two young girls, told him what they had been through.
"Maybe we can't do much for you, but your tragedy has a place in our hearts," said the Pope, who is on the second leg of a six-day, two-nation tour of Asia.
Among the refugees was Shawkat Ara, a 12-year-old Rohingya orphan who broke down in tears shortly after the Pope spoke to her. "My parents were killed. I don't have any joy," she said, recounting how she had lost her entire family in an attack by the military in Myanmar. More than 620,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee since August in what the UN and human rights groups say is a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military. The ethnic minority have told of villages being burned down, and people murdered and women raped by the Myanmar military and Buddhist mobs.
The presence of the Rohingya in Myanmar is a highly sensitive and polarising issue, with the ethnic minority claiming they have lived there for centuries but the Yangon government insisting they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and referring to them as "Bengalis".
The Pope's decision to specifically refer to the Rohingya, rather than talk broadly about the need to respect human rights, was welcomed by activists.
"I'm glad he used the word, it's encouraging," Tun Khin, the head of the Burmese Rohingya Association UK, told reporters yesterday.
"But it's sad the debate is reduced to talking about who said the word or not. The point is the Rohingya are facing genocide in Burma, and the question should be how the international community can put a stop to it.
"The UN Security Council must adopt stronger resolutions. We need targeted sanctions against the perpetrators, and UN peacekeepers to provide safety and security, and those responsible must be brought before the international criminal court."
Earlier, the Pope led a giant Mass in Dhaka attended by around 100,000 Bangladeshi Catholics. (© Daily Telegraph, London)