YANGON, Myanmar — Pope Francis wrapped up his visit to Myanmar on Thursday with a Mass for young people before heading to neighboring Bangladesh where the Muslim Rohingya refugee crisis was expected to take center stage.
Francis has so far refrained from speaking out about Asia’s worst humanitarian crisis in decades out of diplomatic deference to his hosts in Myanmar, who consider the Rohingya as having illegally migrated from Bangladesh and don’t recognize them as their own ethnic group.
The Vatican has defended Francis’ silence, saying the pope wants to “build bridges” with the predominantly Buddhist nation. But human rights groups and Rohingya themselves have expressed disappointment that Francis, an advocate for refugees and the world’s most marginal, refrained from condemning what the U.N. has said is a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Francis took seriously the advice given to him by the local Catholic Church, which urged him to toe a cautious line and not even refer to the “Rohingya” by name during his trip.
“You can criticize what’s said, what’s not said, but the pope is not going to lose moral authority on this question here,” Burke told reporters on Wednesday.
Rohingya have faced persecution and discrimination in Myanmar for decades and are denied citizenship, even though many families have lived there for generations. The situation grew worse in August when the army began what it called clearance operations in northern Rakhine state following attacks on security positions by Rohingya militants.
More than 620,000 Rohingya have since poured into refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, where they have described indiscriminate attacks by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist mobs, including killings, rapes and the torching of entire villages.
Burke stressed that Francis’ diplomatic stance in public in Myanmar didn’t negate what he had said in the past, or what he might be saying in private.
In the past, Francis has strongly condemned the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers,” denounced their suffering because of their faith and called for them to receive “full rights.”
While he called in his first major speech on Tuesday for all of Myanmar’s ethnic groups to have their human rights respected, his failure to specify the Rohingya crisis on Myanmar soil drew criticism from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Rohingya themselves.
On Wednesday, Myanmar Bishop John Hsane Hgyi suggested that reports of atrocities being committed against the Rohingya were not “reliable” or “authoritative,” and that those who criticized Myanmar’s response to a complex situation should “go into the field to study the reality and history” to obtain “true news.”
The government has barred independent groups from traveling to northern Rakhine state.
In his final event in Myanmar, Francis celebrated Mass in Yangon’s St. Mary’s Cathedral for young Catholics. Francis told them to not be afraid to make their voices heard.
“Do not be afraid to make a ruckus, to ask questions that make people think,” he told them. “Make yourselves heard.”