By Elise Harris
Pope Francis arrived in Bangladesh with words of praise for the humanitarian assistance the nation has given to Rohingya Muslim refugees, and urged greater action on their behalf from the international community.
Speaking to Bangladeshi president Abdul Harmid and the nation’s authorities and diplomatic corps, the Pope said that in recent months “the spirit of generosity and solidarity” the country is known for “has been seen most vividly in its humanitarian outreach to a massive influx of refugees from Rakhine State.”
He noted how Bangladesh “at no little sacrifice” has provided shelter and basic necessities for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims at their border.
With the eyes of the world watching the crisis unfold, no one “can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps,” he said.
It is therefore “imperative” that the international community “take decisive measures to address this grave crisis.”
Resolution, he said, means not only working to resolve the political problems that led to the mass displacement of people in recent months, “but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs.”
Pope Francis spoke hours after arriving in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for the second phase of his Nov. 27-Dec. 2 tour of Asia. He was in Burma Nov. 27-30, and will stay in Bangladesh for two days before returning to Rome.
His visit comes amid boiling tensions over the mass exodus of the Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic group who reside in Burma’s Rakhine State, from their homeland amid increasing state-sponsored violence that has led the United Nations to declare the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
With an increase in persecution in their home country of Burma more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh, where millions are in refugee camps.
Though the Vatican has said the crisis was not the original reason behind the Pope’s visit to the two nations, it has largely overshadowed the trip, with many keeping a watchful eye on how the Pope would respond, specifically when it comes to use of the term “Rohingya.”
Despite widespread use of the word in the international community, it is controversial within Burma. The Burmese government refuses to use the term, and considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. At the request of local Church leaders in Burma, Pope Francis refrained from using the word, and he has also done so in Bangladesh.
In his speech to authorities, the Pope praised the natural beauty in Bangladesh, which is seen in its vast network of rivers and waterways, saying the vision is symbolic of the nation’s identity as a people made up of various languages and backgrounds.
Pope Francis then pointed to the nation’s first leaders, whom he said “envisioned a modern, pluralistic and inclusive society in which every person and community could live in freedom, peace and security, with respect for the innate dignity and equal rights of all.”
Bangladesh gained independence from West Pakistan in 1971 after a bloody nine-month war that began when Pakistani military attacked their eastern state in a bid to eliminate Bengali nationalists from the region. West Pakistan began their assault in March 1971, and surrendered in December of the same year, resulting in the independence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
The future of democracy in the young nation and the health of its political life, then, are “essentially linked” to fidelity to the original vision of the founding fathers, Pope Francis said.
“Only through sincere dialogue and respect for legitimate diversity can a people reconcile divisions, overcome unilateral perspectives, and recognize the validity of differing viewpoints,” Francis said, adding that true dialogue looks to the future and builds unity in the service of the common good.
This dialogue, he said, is also concerned for the needs of “all citizens, especially the poor, the underprivileged and those who have no voice.”
These words are especially relevant for Bangladesh, which is among the most populated countries in the world, but is also one of the poorest, with nearly 30 percent of the population living under the poverty line.
Francis said that while he came primarily to support the tiny Catholic community in the country, he is looking forward to meeting with interreligious leaders, as he did in Burma.
Interfaith dialogue has been a major theme of the Pope’s visit, as Burma is a majority Buddhist nation and Bangladesh is majority Muslim. In Bangladesh, 86 percent of the population practices Islam. The 375,000 Catholics there represent less than 0.2 of the total population.
In his speech, Pope Francis noted that Bangladesh is known for the sense of harmony that exists between followers of different religions, saying this atmosphere of mutual respect and interreligious dialogue “enables believers to express freely their deepest convictions about the meaning and purpose of life.”
By doing this, religions are able to better promote the spiritual values which form the basis for a just and peaceful society. And in a world “where religion is often – scandalously – misused to foment division, such a witness to its reconciling and unifying power is all the more necessary.”
Francis said this witness was seen in an “eloquent way” after a brutal terrorist attack at a bakery in Dhaka last year left 29 people dead, prompting the country’s leaders to make a firm statement that God’s name “can never be invoked to justify hatred and violence against our fellow human beings.”
Speaking of the role Catholics play in the country, Pope Francis said they have an essential contribution, specifically through the schools, clinics and medical centers run by the Church.
The Church, he said, “appreciates the freedom to practice her faith and to pursue her charitable works, which benefit the entire nation, not least by providing young people, who represent the future of society.”
He noted how many of the students and teachers in Church-run schools are not Catholic, and voiced his confidence that in keeping with the Bangladeshi constitution, the Church “will continue to enjoy the freedom to carry out these good works as an expression of its commitment to the common good.”
The Pope closed his speech assuring his of his prayers “that in your lofty responsibilities, you will always be inspired by the high ideals of justice and service to your fellow citizens.”
In his greeting to Pope Francis, Bangladesh President Abdul Harmid thanked the Pope for his visit and stressed the importance the nation places on religious freedom and development.
“People are only truly free when they can practice their faith freely and without fear,” he said, adding that in Bangladesh they “cherish” religious liberty and therefore stand with the Pope in defending it, “knowing that people everywhere must be able to live with their faith, free from fear and intimidation.”
Harmid also pointed to Francis’ message on mercy, which he said Bangladesh has put into practice with their welcome of the Rohingya Muslims.
“It is our shared responsibility to ensure for them a safe, sustainable and dignified return to their own home and integration with the social, economic and political life of Myanmar,” he said, adding that the Pope’s “passionate” condemnation of the brutality they face brings hope for a resolution.
“Your closeness to them, your call for helping them and to ensure their full rights gives moral responsibility to the international community to act with promptness and sincerity.”
The president also pointed to the problem of radical terrorist violence, saying “no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”
The Bangladesh government, he said, is therefore pursuing a “zero tolerance” policy committed to eradicating the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism.
“We denounce terrorism and violent extremism, in all its forms and manifestations,” Harmid said, yet at the same time, like other Muslim majority countries, Bangladesh is also concerned about “the rise of Islamophobia and hate crimes in many western societies, which is adversely affecting lives of millions of peaceful people of faith.”
“We believe that inter-faith dialogue, at all levels of the society, is important to combat such extremist trends,” he said. He closed his speech with an appeal to protect the natural environment, and said the Pope’s visit “renews our resolve towards building a peaceful, harmonious and prosperous world.”