DHAKA, Bangladesh – Pope Francis has gotten into trouble before for ditching diplomatic protocol and calling a spade a spade, most famously when he labeled the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians a “genocide” from the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Francis took the hit — Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican in protest — for the sake of standing up for an oppressed people who were nearly wiped off the map a century ago.
Given the opportunity to do the same in Myanmar, where the military has launched what the U.N. says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority, Francis opted instead for diplomatic expediency. He not only avoided the contested term “Rohingya” in his public remarks, he ignored Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades entirely and didn’t call out his hosts for launching it.
Human rights groups complained. Rohingya complained. Journalists and pundits asked if Francis’ legacy as a fearless crusader for the world’s most marginal — the poor, homeless, refugees and prisoners — wasn’t now in question.
By Friday, Francis’ heart won out.
In an emotional encounter with 16 Rohingya refugees, Francis said what he probably wanted to say from the start. His voice trembling after he greeted the men, women and children who had been forced to flee their homes in Myanmar for wretched camps in Bangladesh, Francis begged them for forgiveness for what they had endured and the “indifference of the world” to their plight.