Pope holds emotional meeting with refugees, says “Rohingya” for first time

By Philip Pullella and Krishna N. Das

DHAKA (Reuters) – Pope Francis had an emotional meeting with Muslim refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh on Friday and used the word Rohingya to describe them for the first time on his Asian trip, calling for them to be respected.

He also urged the world not to ignore refugees, persecuted minorities, the poor and vulnerable.

The encounter took place at an inter-religious peace meeting on his first full day in Bangladesh, to where 625,000 Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state have fled from an army crackdown.

Refugees have said scores of Rohingya villages have been burnt to the ground, people killed and women raped. Myanmar’s military has denied accusations of “ethnic cleansing” by the United States and United Nations.

The pope had earlier in the week visited Myanmar, where he met its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

But there he avoided using the word Rohingya, a term the authorities reject. Many people in Myanmar regard the largely stateless Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

At the Bangladesh meeting, however, he said: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

Addressing about 5,000 people at the gathering on the grounds of the Roman Catholic archbishop’s residence, Francis said: “How much our world needs this heart to beat strongly, to counter the virus of political corruption, destructive religious ideologies, and the temptation to turn a blind eye to the needs of the poor, refugees, persecuted minorities, and those who are most vulnerable.”

Aid workers brought 16 Rohingya refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar, about 430 km (260 miles) southeast of Dhaka on the border with Myanmar, to join other Muslims, as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and charity workers.

The pope looked somber as each member of the group, which included 12 men and four women, including two young girls, told him their stories through interpreters. Francis looked pained as he listened.

“In the name of all those who persecute you, who have persecuted you, those who have hurt you, above all for the indifference of the world, I ask for forgiveness, forgiveness.”

Francis said in improvised comments.

Before that, in his calls for peace in Myanmar and Bangladesh, he had not publicly used the word Rohingya to describe the refugees — disappointing human rights groups and other prominent figures in the West who have condemned the repression.

He had decided to follow the advice of Myanmar Church officials, who…

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