Dhaka (AFP) – Pope Francis wrapped up a high-stakes Asia tour Saturday after meeting Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in a highly symbolic gesture of solidarity with the Muslim minority fleeing violence in Myanmar.
The Catholic leader flew out of Dhaka after visiting a hospital run by the order of Mother Theresa and addressing thousands of students on the final day of a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar that has been dominated by the plight of the Rohingya.
Pope Francis is known for championing the rights of refugees and has repeatedly expressed support for the long-suffering Rohingya, describing them as his “brothers and sisters”.
The usually forthright pontiff walked a diplomatic tightrope during his four days in Myanmar — the first papal visit to the country — avoiding any direct reference to the Rohingya in public while appealing to Buddhist leaders to overcome “prejudice and hatred”.
In Bangladesh he addressed the issue head-on, meeting a group of Rohingya refugees from the squalid camps in southern Bangladesh in an emotional encounter in Dhaka.
Among them was a 12-year-old girl who told him she had lost all her family in a Myanmar army attack on her village before fleeing across the border earlier this year.
“Your tragedy is very hard, very great, but it has a place in our hearts,” he told them.
“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.”
– ‘Clear message’ –
The pope referred to the refugees as Rohingya, using the term for the first time on the tour after the archbishop of Yangon advised him that doing so in Myanmar could inflame tensions and endanger Christians.
The word is politically sensitive in the mainly Buddhist country because many there do not consider the Rohingya a distinct ethnic group, regarding them instead as interlopers from Bangladesh.
He had faced criticism from some rights activists and refugees for failing to address the issue publicly.
He did not visit the refugee camps, where only a handful were aware that one of the world’s most high-profile leaders was championing their cause just 300 miles (around 500 kilometres) away.
One refugee expressed gratitude that the pope had finally uttered the word Rohingya, and said he believed the meeting would have a big impact.
“It is the first time that a great world leader has listened to us,” 29-year-old Rohingya teacher Mohammad Zubair told AFP.
“This meeting will send a clear message to global leaders.”