By Elise Harris
On Wednesday Pope Francis made an urgent appeal for prayer on behalf for all suffering due to slavery and exploitation, pointing specifically to the minority Rohingya population of Myanmar, who have undergone violent persecution for years.
“I would like pray with you today in a special way for our brother and sister Rohingya. They were driven out of Myanmar, they go from one place to another and no one wants them,” the Pope said Feb. 8.
“They are good people, peaceful people, they aren’t Christians, but they are good. They are our brothers and sisters. And they have suffered for years,” he said, noting that often times members of the ethnic minority have been “tortured and killed” simply for carrying forward their traditions and Muslim faith.
He spoke to pilgrims gathered for his general audience in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, leading them in praying an “Our Father” for the Rohingya people, and asking St. Josephine Bakhita, herself a former salve, to intercede.
Rohingya people are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group largely from the Rakhine state of Burma, in west Myanmar. Since clashes began in 2012 between the state’s Buddhist community and the long-oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority, some 125,000 Rohingya have been displaced, while more than 100,000 have fled Myanmar by sea.
In order to escape forced segregation from the rest of the population inside rural ghettos, many of the Rohingya – who are not recognized by the government as a legitimate ethnic group or as citizens of Myanmar – have made the perilous journey at sea in hopes of evading persecution.
In 2015 a number of Rohingya people – estimated to be in the thousands – were stranded at sea in boats with dwindling supplies while Southeastern nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia refuse to take them in.
However, in recent months tens of thousands have fled to Bangladesh amid a military crackdown on insurgents in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. The horrifying stories recounted by the Rohingya include harrowing tales of rapes, killings and the burning of their houses.
According to BBC News, despite claims of a genocide, a special government-appointed committee in Myanmar formed in January has investigated the situation, but found no evidence to support the allegations.
In Bangladesh, however, the Rohingya have had little relief, since they are not recognized as refugees in the country. Since October, many who fled to Bangladesh have been detained and forced to return to the neighboring Rakhine state.
In his audience appeal, Pope Francis also pointed out that Feb. 8 marks both the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, as well as the third International day of prayer and reflection against human trafficking. This year the day focuses on the plight of children, with the theme: “We are children! Not slaves!”
Kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of 7, St. Josephine is the event’s patron. After being bought and sold several times during her adolescence, often undergoing immense suffering, she eventually discovered the faith in her early 20s. She was then baptized, and after being freed entered the Canossian Sisters in Italy.
Pope Francis noted that like modern trafficking victims, St. Josephine was “enslaved in Africa, exploited, humiliated,” but she never lost hope.
“She carried hope forward, and ended up as a migrant in Europe,” he said, noting that it was there that she felt God’s call and became a religious sister.
“Let us pray to St. Josephine Bakhita for all, for all migrants, refugees and exploited, who suffer so much,” he said, and led pilgrims in a round of applause in honor of the Saint.
In his audience speech, Francis continued his ongoing catechesis on the virtue of hope, focusing particularly on its communitarian and ecclesial dimension.
He noted how in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle’s gaze was “widened” to all the different realities that formed part of the Christian community at the time. In seeing them, Paul asked them “to pray for one another and to support one another.”
This doesn’t just mean helping people in the practical things of everyday life, he said, but also means “helping each other in hope, sustaining each other in hope.”
“It’s not a coincidence that he begins by referencing those who have been entrusted with pastoral responsibility and guidance,” because they are “the first to be called to nourish hope,” the Pope said, noting that this isn’t because they better than others, but because of the divine ministry entrusted to them which “goes well beyond their own strength.”
Francis then pointed to those risk losing hope and falling into desperation, noting that the news always seems to be full of the bad things people do when they become desperate.
“Desperation leads to many bad things,” he said, explaining that when it comes to those who are discouraged, weak and feel downcast due to life’s heaviness, the Church in these cases must make her “closeness and warmth” even closer and more loving, showing even greater compassion.
Compassion, he cautioned, doesn’t mean “to have pity” on someone, but rather to “to suffer with the other, to draw near to the one who suffers. A word, a caress, but which comes from the heart. This is compassion.”
This witness, the Pope said, doesn’t stay closed in the confines of the Christian community, but rather “resounds in all its vigor” even to social and civil context outside as an appeal “not to create walls, but bridges, to not exchange evil with evil, (but) to overcome evil with good, offense with forgiveness.”
A Christian, Francis said, can never tell someone “’you will pay!’ Never. This is not a Christian act.”
Instead, offenses must be overcome with forgiveness so as to live in peace with everyone, he said, adding that “this is the Church! And this is operates Christian hope, when it takes the strong features but at the same time the tenderness of love.”
In learning to have this kind of hope, “it’s not possible” to do it alone, he said, adding that in ourder to be nourished, hope “needs a body in when the various members sustain and revitalize each other.
“This means that, if we hope, it’s because many of our brothers and sisters have taught us to hope and have kept our hope alive,” he said, noting that among these people are “the small, the poor, the simple and the marginalized.”
This is the case, he said, because “those who close in their own wellbeing, in their own contentment, who always feel in place, don’t know hope.