Pope Francis shied away from decrying the atrocities being committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim community in a key speech during a visit to the country this week.
“The arduous process of peace building and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights,” he said on Tuesday, adding that “religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building.
Francis spoke after meeting with the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for her response to the ethnocentric violence.
In a speech welcoming Francis, Suu Kyi alluded to the issues that have “eroded trust and understanding, harmony and cooperation, between different communities,” but failed to specifically mention the religious minority.
Francis opted for a generic message of unity.
“Unity is always a product of diversity,” Francis told leaders of various faiths in the Burmese city of Yangon earlier on Tuesday. “Everyone has their values, their riches as well as their differences, as each religion has its riches, its traditions, its riches to share. And this can only happen if we live in peace, and peace is constructed in a chorus of differences.”
Francis’ visit comes at a time of great friction in Myanmar, as officials continue to relinquish responsibility for the ethnocentric violence. The latest outbreak began on Aug. 25, when the military launched a crackdown in response to Rohingya terrorist activity.
It has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee the Rakhine state for neighboring Bangladesh, amounting to what Amnesty International has called “crimes against humanity.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused the military of “ethnic cleansing” last week.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to a repatriation deal last week, although the effective date has yet to be announced.
Whether Francis would even use the term “Rohingya” during his trip was uncertain. The country’s cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, had requested that he refrain from using it, since the Buddhist-majority population refers to them as “Bengalis” who come from Bangladesh.
“This word is very much contested and not acceptable by the military, nor the government, nor the people in Myanmar,” he said earlier this month.
Myanmar’s military leader, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, met with Francis on Monday and denied overseeing the mass atrocities.
“Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all,” the general said following the meeting.
Human rights groups, meanwhile, pushed for Francis to address the crisis.
“The pope absolutely should stand up for the Rohingya by using the name Rohingya,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia. “The Rohingya have little left besides their group name after years of statelessness, discriminatory restrictions on movement and access to life-sustaining services, and being targeted by a military subjecting them to ethnic cleansing and atrocities.”
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, warned in advance of the trip that “if [Francis] is silent about the persecution of the Rohingya, he loses moral credibility.”
Myanmar has experienced a rise in anti-Islamic sentiment since 2011, according to an International Crisis Group study published in September.
“The feeling that Islam is especially pernicious ... frustrates Buddhists who believe that their faith has suffered for its tolerance of other religions,” the report says.
Francis has displayed his support for the persecuted minority in the past.
“Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority,” he said during an August radio address. “I would like to express my full closeness to them ― and let all of us ask the Lord to save them.”
Francis will travel to Bangladesh on Thursday, where he plans to meet with a small group of Rohingya refugees in the country’s capital, Dhaka.