Pope Francis met and prayed alongside 16 Muslim refugees in Bangladesh on Friday, using the word “Rohingya” for the first time during a papal trip to Asia filled with diplomatic tensions.
“Let’s not close our hearts, let’s not look to the other side,” the pope said during an interfaith prayer for peace in Dhaka, according to Crux, a Catholic news website. “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
Francis’ comments came at the end of an interfaith gathering at the archbishop’s house in Dhaka, which was attended by leaders from Bangladesh’s Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist communities.
Through translators, he also spoke to a group of Rohingya refugees from three families, Crux reported, including 12 men, two women in niqabs, and two girls.
“In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, of those who’ve done you wrong, above all, the world’s indifference, I ask you for forgiveness,” Francis told the refugees. “I now appeal to your big heart, that you’re able to grant us the forgiveness we seek.”
The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority who have been persecuted in Myanmar for decades. The violence escalated late August, when the military responded to an attack by Rohingya militants with a heavy crackdown. The conflict has prompted more than 625,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh.
The United Nations’ top human rights official has called the situation “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Pope Francis’ speeches during his trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh have been watched closely, to see if he would use the word “Rohingya” to describe these refugees. Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority population tends to use the word “Bengalis” to describe the minority Muslim group, viewing them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar, which means they are essentially stateless.
Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing reportedly told the pope during a private meeting earlier this week that “Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all.”
Although he has used the word “Rohingya” in the past, Francis decided to listen to the advice of Myanmar’s cardinal and refrain from using it during his time in Myanmar this week. He instead opted for a generic call for unity, sparking some criticism from international human rights groups.
On Friday, the last full day of the pontiff’s trip, Francis spoke to the Rohingya refugees one by one and listened to their stories with the help of translators. Aid workers had brought the Rohingya to the pope’s interfaith meeting from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, on the border with Myanmar, Reuters reported.
One of the women refugees told Reuters before the meeting that she was captured and tortured by Myanmar’s military, and is still recovering from the trauma.
“I will share my pain with him,” the woman said.