BALUKHALI, Bangladesh: A group of Rohingya Muslim refugees due to meet the Pope in Bangladesh on Friday have high hopes the encounter will put them on the path back home to Myanmar.
The 16, including two children and one woman, are among more than 600,000 who have fled an army-led crackdown in their home state of Rakhine and sought safety in the squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.
They will have travelled nearly 300 miles (480 kilometers) overnight to reach the capital Dhaka, accompanied by armed police, and want to tell the head of the Catholic Church what has happened to their people.
“When I meet him, I will tell him that in Myanmar they have killed us and tortured us,” said Mohammad Yunus, a 38-year-old father of three.
“They treat us inhumanely. We left our property, land, our houses,” he said.
“They have to take us back and give us proper citizenship. I would ask him to arrange these basic rights for us,” Yunus added.
A stream of desperate humanity has poured over the border into Bangaldesh since late August, bringing with them stories of rape, murder and arson at the hands of Myanmar’s military and Buddhist mobs – a campaign the United Nations and US have called “ethnic cleansing.”
Pope Francis, who called for “decisive” international action on the crisis as he arrived in Bangladesh on Thursday, has previously described the persecuted Rohingya as his “brothers and sisters” in an effort to ease their suffering.
But despite pressure to confront the issue head on, the pontiff is yet to actually utter the word “Rohingya” in public during his South Asia tour.
He was urged not to use the term during his visit to Buddhist-majority Myanmar – where the group are dubbed “Bengali” migrants and not entitled to full citizenship – to avoid provoking hardline Buddhists and making the country’s Catholics a target.
Some of the refugees also noted it would have been “better” had he made it to the camps to see them.
Freedom to say prayers
Nevertheless, Abul Fayaz, a community leader at the vast Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, said he looked forward to being embraced by the Argentine pontiff – a compassionate gesture he is known for.
“He is such a big leader, I’m sure that when we meet him he will be able to assuage our fears and doubts. He will caress our heads with love and comfort us,” the 35-year-old said.
In Myanmar, discrimination has curtailed the Rohingya’s rights to study, work, travel, marry and even to practise their religion.
Access to health services and education is limited and the group is also banned from voting and entering certain professions like medicine and law.
“I’m really, very hopeful,” said Fayaz.
“We want him to help us get Rohingya citizenship, ensure our safety, help us move freely wherever we want, whenever we want and most importantly, create a way so we can say our prayers with freedom like they [Buddhists] do,” he added.
The 16 are expected to come face to face with the Pope after attending an interfaith peace meeting in the garden of the archbishop of Dhaka.
Mohammad Nurulla, an educated 37-year-old among the group, added he was “very happy” about the looming meeting.
“Look, only Allah can solve our problem, but we can benefit from meeting the Pope… he can act as a mediator to help get our rights back,” he said.