Pope Francis waves to journalists as he boards his plane for a six-day trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci international airport.
Pope Francis waves to journalists as he boards his plane for a six-day trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci international airport. Gregorio Borgia

Don't say Rohingya, Pope told

POPE Francis is under pressure not to use the word "Rohingya” when he visits Myanmar and Bangladesh this week, in a trip scheduled before the latest round of violence began.

Local Catholics, a Myanmar cardinal and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan are among those who have warned the pontiff against using the word.

"It is a very contested term, and the military and government and the public would not like him to express it,” Burmese Cardinal Charles Maung Bo said earlier this month, following a meeting with Pope Francis.

Catholics inside the country have also expressed concern about a backlash.

"Like other people, I'm afraid of what he will say about Rakhine state,” a priest called Father Paul said. "I don't think he will say anything.”

Mr Annan, who headed a commission of inquiry into the Rakhine persecutions, said using the term could be "incendiary”.

"The word is so emotional,” he said.

Most people in Myanmar call Rohingya Muslims "Bengalis”, in an attempt to paint them as illegal immigrants.

In one of his weekly addresses in February, the pontiff said he wanted people to pray "particularly for our Rohingya brothers and sisters”.

"They have been thrown out of Burma (Myanmar), moved from one place to another because no one wants them. But they are good people, peaceful people,” he said.

"They are our brothers and sisters. For years they have suffered, they have been tortured and killed simply because they practise their own traditions, their own Muslim faith.”

Last week, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke refused to confirm whether Pope Francis would utter "Rohingya” during his trip, adding that it's "not a prohibited word”.

"Let's just say it's very interesting diplomatically,” he told reporters.

The UN dubbed the Rohingya "the most oppressed people on Earth” even before the latest military offensive began in August.

More than 600,000 have fled to Bangladesh in the past three months.

Last week, the US labelled the ongoing violence against the Rohingya "ethnic cleansing”.

Considering the scale of the violence and displacement faced by the minority group, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told The Independent he believes the pontiff should make a point of using the word Rohingya.

"[He] should express the outrage of the international community and all people of faith about the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine state, and make a point of using the word Rohingya to maintain faith with those long-suffering people who the Burmese government refuses to allow citizenship or the right of self-identification.”

Mr Robertson also called for the pontiff to speak out against Burmese laws that allow discrimination against Christians.

"[He should] press the government to repeal the four so-called 'race and religion' laws that enshrine discrimination on the basis of religion in marriage and family matters, and mandates intrusive government oversight of persons seeking to convert to another religion.”

Just over one per cent of Burma's 53 million people are Catholic. Though they are not persecuted like the Rohingya Muslims, Christians still face discrimination in mostly Buddhist Burma.

"To be honest, if you are a Christian in this country, you will never get promoted,” Reverend Mariano Soe Naing, a spokesman for Burma's Bishops' Conference, told Associated Press.

"There are no Catholics in the government administration or in any significant leadership positions.”

While in Myanmar, Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a mass in a stadium in Yangon, spend time with Buddhist leaders and meet the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and president Htin Kyaw.

The pontiff will also be introduced to Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's commander-in-chief and the man responsible for the military operation in Rakhine state.

Pope Francis is then expected to go to Bangladesh and spend time in the refugee camps along the border with Myanmar.

- Sally Hayden, The Independent