The Vatican on Wednesday defended Pope Francis’ decision not to speak out for Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims by name on his first papal visit to the country.
Leading human rights groups have criticized Francis’ failure to address alleged atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State where a violent crackdown has sent some 625,000 fleeing across the border to Bangladesh in recent months.
“The pope is not going to lose moral authority on this,” spokesman Greg Burke told reporters at a news conference in Yangon on Wednesday.
Acknowledging the criticism, Mr. Burke said the pope’s diplomacy was not “infallible” and that the pope had taken the concerns of the local Catholic Church seriously.
Myanmar Church leaders had warned the pope that speaking out for the Rohingya could threaten Myanmar’s nearly 700,000 Catholics in the Buddhist-majority country.
The majority of Myanmar’s population do not consider the Rohingya to be citizens and call them “Bengalis,” inferring they are interlopers from Bangladesh.
In an address on Tuesday alongside civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital, Naypyitaw, the pope urged a “commitment to justice and respect for human rights” in Myanmar but did not refer to the Rohingya by name.
He again refrained from uttering the word on Wednesday.
Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, on Tuesday bemoaned the pope’s failure to use the name, saying “self-identifying is so important because at this point [the Rohingya] have been stripped of so much that they have very little left.”
Pope Francis met Myanmar’s leading Buddhist monks and encouraged peace and reconciliation between different religions and ethnicities in the country.
Francis said the meeting with Myanmar’s Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist monks was an opportunity to “affirm a commitment to peace, respect for human dignity and justice for every man and woman”.
Francis also said religions needed to join together to “surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred.”
Earlier on Wednesday, he preached a similar message to around 150,000 Catholics at a Mass in Yangon.
“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” he told those gathered for the open-air religious service, “yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus.”
Most of Myanmar’s Catholics are ethnic minorities from the country’s restive fringes, where a number of armed ethnic groups regularly clash with government forces and thousands remain displaced by violence.
Prayers at Wednesday’s Mass were read in the Shan, Chin, Karen, Kachin and Kayan languages and included one prayer that the leaders of Myanmar “foster peace and reconciliation through dialogue and understanding” to end conflicts in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states.
Michael Salai Soe Aung, a 40-year-old from Myanmar’s western Chin State who attended the Mass, told dpa: “I’m so happy I can’t describe my feelings with words.
“I believe the pope brings peace wherever he goes.”
The pope is currently on a six-day trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh and is scheduled to travel to Dhaka on Thursday where he plans to remain until Saturday.