ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) – Pope Francis on Saturday defended his strategy of avoiding the term “Rohingya” in Myanmar, saying he believed he got his message across to both the civilian and military leadership without shutting down dialogue.
Speaking to reporters aboard the plane returning to Rome from Bangladesh, the pontiff also indicated that he had been firm with Myanmar’s military leaders in private meetings about the need for them to respect the rights of Rohingya refugees. He also disclosed that he cried when he met a group of Rohingya refugees on Friday in Bangladesh, where he defended their rights by name in an emotional meeting.
“For me, the most important thing is that message gets through, to try to say things one step at a time and listen to the responses,” he said.
“I knew that if in the official speeches I would have used that word, they would have closed the door in our faces. But (in public) I described situations, rights, said that no one should be excluded, (the right to) citizenship, in order to allow myself to go further in the private meetings,” he said.
Francis did not use the word Rohingya in public while on the first leg of the trip in Myanmar. Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar does not recognise the mostly Muslim Rohingya as an ethnic group with its own identity but as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Local Roman Catholic Church authorities had advised him not to say it because it could spark a backlash against Christians and other minority groups.