Pope Francis utters the word ‘Rohingya’ after criticism

Francis meets Rohingya refugees in Dhaka after coming under fire for failing to mention them in a speech in Myanmar.

Pope Francis shakes hands with a Rohingya refugee during an inter-religious conference at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka
Francis shakes hands with a Rohingya refugee in Dhaka, Bangladesh [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Pope Francis has uttered the word “Rohingya” on a trip to Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have sought safety.

Critics had decried his avoidance of speaking about the months-long persecution of the Rohingya during his four-day visit to Myanmar.

But as he met a multi-faith group in Dhaka on Friday, at St Mary’s Cathedral, he told refugees: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

Francis listened to the suffering and experiences of 16 refugees – 12 men, two women and two young girls – who approached him one by one.

“We have realised that your sufferings are very deep,” he said, “We all want peace. We are working to establish peace where there are ill.”

Foyez Ali Majhi, a refugee from Balukhali camp who met Francis, told Al Jazeera that he asked him to “inform the world about their suffering”.

Foyez said the Myanmar military killed and raped their families and neighbours.

“Our houses were burnt and they [Myanmar military] have taken everything,” he said.

“I told the pope to get justice for us.”


Abul Syed, another Rohingya refugee who met Francis, said that they talked about certain demands.

“The main one is to give us our identity back,” Syed said. “We want our ‘Rohingya’ nationality in Myanmar.”

Syed told Al Jazeera that unless the Rohingya people are given their “identity”, nothing will change in Rakhine state, from where most of the Rohingya have fled.

“If we go back there without identity, we will never be safe. I told the pope about it,” he said.

Syed, speaking on behalf of the Rohingya refugee group, said they demanded that Myanmar ensure the safe and secure repatriation of all the Rohingya who have fled.

“The pope had listened to us and he said he would talk about our demands to the world stage,” Syed said. 

Rahmat Ullah, speaking to Al Jazeera by phone in Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazaar, said he was aware of Francis’ meeting with “some of the refugees” from the camps.

“The ones [Rohingya refugees] who went there [in Dhaka] are educated ones,” Ullah said. “We have trust in them that they would talk about our sufferings to him.”  


In the past, Francis – whose papacy so far has been widely characterised by advocacy for refugees and vulnerable minorities – has repeatedly condemned violence against the mostly Muslim minority, calling them “our Rohingya brothers and sisters” and labelling the Christians who refuse to treat them humanely as “hypocrites”.

But he came under fire after meeting with Myanmar’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and failing to mention the minority in his speech.

Meanwhile, Muhsena, a young girl, said she is not sure about what good Francis’ visit will be.

“Lots of important people have come to the camps in the last two months, but here we still remain, suffering to live our lives on a daily basis,” she said.

More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in fear of abuses by Myanmar soldiers.

The ethnic group is subject to a raft of discriminatory measures by Myanmar’s government, such as being deprived of citizenship.

Journalists and human rights groups have documented widespread rape, killing, and destruction of homes by government troops but Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to recognise the atrocities and condemn the Myanmar military.

Tears run down the face of a Rohingya refugee as she and others pray during their meeting with Pope Francis in Dhaka [Damir Sagolj/Reuters]
Tears run down the face of a Rohingya refugee as she and others pray during their meeting with Pope Francis in Dhaka [Damir Sagolj/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera