Cardinal urges Pope to avoid term ‘Rohingya’

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Pope Francis looks on during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican. AFP

YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar’s most senior Catholic prelate has urged Pope Francis to avoid using the term ‘Rohingya’ during a visit this month, when he is expected to raise the humanitarian crisis faced by the Muslim minority after a Myanmar army offensive in August.

The pope is set to visit largely Buddhist Myanmar from November 27-30, before going to Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim neighbour where more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to take shelter in refugee camps.

In the first visit by a pope to Myanmar, Pope Francis will meet Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate who leads a civilian administration that is less than two years old, the generals it has to share power with, as well as leading Buddhist monks.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo said the pope would raise the need to provide assistance to the Muslim minority, saying: “These are people who are suffering and these are the people in need of help now.”

Pope Francis has used the term Rohingya when he has spoken about their suffering in the recent past. But Ms Suu Kyi has asked foreign leaders not to use the term Rohingya, because in her view it is inflammatory.

Cardinal Bo, appointed by Pope Francis in 2015 as Myanmar’s first and only cardinal, said church leaders in the country had advised him to sidestep the divisive issue of the name.

“We have asked him at least to refrain from using the word ‘Rohingya’ because this word is very much contested and not acceptable by the military, nor the government, nor the people in Myanmar,” Cardinal Bo said.

It was unclear if the pope would heed the advice, Cardinal Bo added, but if he did so, it would not be to politicise the issue or endorse the Rohingya right to Myanmar citizenship, “but he just wants to identify this particular group who call themselves ‘Rohingya’”.

Many people in Myanmar regard the largely stateless Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and they are excluded from the 135 “national races” recognised by law.

Regardless of Myanmar’s sensitivities, however, the United Nations and United States continue to call them Rohingya, upholding their right to self-identify.

Pope Francis will highlight the importance of resolving the refugee crisis through dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh and with the help of the international community, Cardinal Bo added.

“These are the people who do not enjoy the citizenship and are somewhat unwanted in both countries,” said Cardinal Bo, referring to Myanmar and Bangladesh.

“They are also human beings, they have a human face and they also need human dignity, so eliminating or killing any one of them, that’s not justified…,” Cardinal Bo said, referring to the group as “our brothers and sisters”.

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