Pope Francis plunges into a diplomatic minefield next week with visits to under-fire Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh amid mounting outrage over the plight of persecuted Rohingya Muslims.
Some 620,000 Rohingya, more than half their total number, have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh since August as a result of violence that the UN and the United States have described as ethnic cleansing.
Most of the refugees, a third of them children, have ended up in squalid refugee camps in impoverished Bangladesh, where they have given consistent and harrowing accounts of murder, arson and rape being used as part of a military-orchestrated campaign to force them out of mainly Buddhist Myanmar.
The Myanmar military insists it is engaged in counter-insurgency operations. But rights groups dismiss that slant on recent events.
Amnesty International said this week the treatment of the Rohingya was racial discrimination on the level of apartheid South Africa while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that “no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities” perpetrated in Rakhine.
Church officials say the Argentine pontiff will seek to use his trip to encourage reconciliation, dialogue and efforts to alleviate the crisis.
Hopes on that front were bolstered on Thursday when Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to start repatriating some of the refugees in two months time.
However, rights groups have raised concerns about the repatriation plans, including questioning where the minority will be resettled after hundreds of their villages were razed, and how their safety will be ensured in a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is surging.
Many of the refugees say they are reluctant to return to Myanmar unless they are granted full citizenship.
Rohingya refugees meeting
Francis will however have to tread extremely carefully in Myanmar, where the Rohingya are widely detested and officials even refuse to use the term, insisting instead on the minority being classed as illegal Bengali immigrants.
Francis arrives in Myanmar on Monday and will spend three days there. In a last minute change to his programme he now plans to have a private meeting with the head of the country’s army, General Min Aung Hlaing.
“It is going to be very interesting diplomatically,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.
The meeting with the military chief was organised on the recommendation of Charles Bo, the archbishop of Yangon, who also advised the pope not to use the term “Rohingya”.
Vatican officials played down suggestions the outspoken pontiff was being gagged but indicated that he would likely follow Cardinal Bo’s advice to avoid any unnecessary inflammation of tensions.
He is due to meet a small group of Rohingya refugees on the second leg of his trip, in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Friday.
The visit to Myanmar will be the first by any pope to the country formerly known as Burma.
Pope John Paul II visited Bangladesh in 1986 and Paul VI visited what was then East Pakistan in 1970, a year before the mostly Muslim country gained independence.
Due in Yangon on Monday, Francis will meet Burma’s civilian leader and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital, Naypyidaw, on Tuesday.
Suu Kyi has been widely condemned for a perceived lack of sympathy towards the Rohingya and her unwillingness to condemn alleged atrocities by the army.
But Francis, who met the former dissident at the Vatican in May, when the Holy See established diplomatic relations with Myanmar, is understood to be sympathetic to the difficult position she finds herself in.
“The military want to get her out of power and the pope will be showing his support for her,” said Bernardo Cervellera, a former missionary who edits Asia News, a specialist review about Catholicism in the region.
Some 200,000 people are expected for an open air mass in Yangon on Wednesday morning. Francis will follow that up with a meeting with Buddhist leaders.
Catholics account for only 660,000 (1.2 percent) of Myanmar’s population of 53 million and are an even smaller minority in neighbouring Bangladesh (375,000 out of a population of 165 million), where Islamist sentiment is seen as a developing threat.
That was underlined in July 2016 when militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group killed 24 people in a Dhaka restaurant, sparing only those capable of reciting a verse from the Koran.