POPE Francis’ visits to Myanmar and Bangladesh this week have the potential to be a defining moment for the Argentine Pontiff’s global outreach.
This journey to the lands straddling the historical region of Bengal is a curiosity among papal visits. In both countries, Christians, let alone Catholics, are a minority. Myanmar and Bangladesh are linked by migration, and the Pope will be retracing the ancient crossings of the Burmese and Bengalis.
The Pope’s agenda, undeniably, is to help solve the crisis involving Myanmar’s minority Rohingya population, and the visits will surely put to test his diplomatic mettle.
A crackdown by Myanmar’s military has driven more than 620,000 Rohingya out of the country’s northern Rakhine state and into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar’s military claims the campaign is one of anti-insurgency; Western countries and human rights organizations characterize it as “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide.”
It is no secret that Myanmar’s Buddhist majority detest the Rohingya, which they call “Bengalis” and, therefore, illegal immigrants. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is unable to accept the Rohingya, rendering them stateless.
The crisis has tainted even the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s democracy icon, who is now the head of Myanmar’s government and chief diplomat, for her supposed silence and indifference over the plight of the Rohingya.
While the Pope’s visit is overtly political in motive, it is nonetheless a constructive one. The meeting between the Pope and Suu Kyi, their second, will not be a confrontation, according to Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, leader of the Catholic church in Myanmar.
The Pope, who himself has a migrant heritage and is an advocate for migrants and refugees, will come to “heal the wounds of our nation, by showing a future that can bring positive results for all communities,” says Bo.
It will be unproductive to “stigmatize” Suu Kyi over the issue, says the prelate, since for many she remains a symbol and a hope especially after democratic reforms in Myanmar beginning 2011.
The Pope’s message for the 2018 World Day of Peace, released by the Vatican on Saturday, foreshadows the visits, and presents a way forward – harnessing the vibrancy of the Christian minority to generate solidarity for their Muslim brothers and sisters.
This requires a “contemplative gaze” guided by justice and solidarity, says Pope Francis in his message.
“When we turn that gaze to migrants and refugees, we discover that they do not arrive empty-handed. They bring their courage, skills, energy and aspirations, as well as the treasures of their own cultures; and in this way, they enrich the lives of the nations that receive them,” the Pope says.
“We also come to see the creativity, tenacity and spirit of sacrifice of the countless individuals, families and communities around the world who open their doors and hearts to migrants and refugees, even where resources are scarce,” he adds.
The Pope’s presence in Myanmar and Bangladesh this week will be a timely conscience call for all parties involved in the cross-border crisis. A spiritual leader is, perhaps, in the best position to exhort everyone involved to find the solution within themselves.