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Pope says 'Rohingya'in encounter with refugees

By NICOLE WINFIELD
Dec. 1, 2017 at 11:11 p.m.

Pope Francis reviews an honor guard Thursday as he arrives at Dhaka's international airport in Bangladesh.

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Pope Francis asked for forgiveness Friday from refugees in Bangladesh for all the hurt and persecution they have endured, demanded their rights be recognized and pronounced the word he had so assiduously avoided only days earlier in Myanmar: "Rohingya."

In a deeply moving encounter, Francis greeted and blessed a group of Rohingya Muslim refugees, grasping their hands and listening to their stories in a show of public solidarity amid Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades. He apologized for the "indifference of the world" to their plight and then pronounced the name of their ethnic group to a gathering of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian leaders.

"The presence of God today is also called 'Rohingya,' " he said.

The 16 Rohingya — 12 men, two women and two young girls — had traveled to Dhaka from Cox's Bazar, the district bordering Myanmar where refugee camps are overflowing with more than 620,000 Rohingya who have fled what the U.N. says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar's military.

The campaign has included the burning of Rohingya villages and fleeing Rohingya have described rape and shootings by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs that left them no option but to make the dangerous and sometimes deadly journey through jungles and by sea to Bangladesh.

The Myanmar government has denied any such campaign is underway. The army says "clearance operations" are targeting militants who attacked security positions in August.

Myanmar's government and most of the Buddhist majority recoil from the term "Rohingya," saying the members of the Muslim minority are "Bengalis" who migrated illegally from Bangladesh. Myanmar doesn't acknowledge them as a local ethnic group and won't give them citizenship, even though they have lived in Myanmar for generations.

One by one, each one of the refugees approached the pope at the end of Friday's event in the tented garden of the Dhaka archbishop's residence. Francis blessed one little girl, placing his hand on her head, and grasped the shoulder of a young man. The women who approached him pushed aside their headscarves so they could speak, offering their hands out for him to hold.

"Maybe we can't do much for you, but your tragedy has a place in our hearts," Francis told them.

His voice trembling with emotion, he continued: "In the name of all those who persecute you, who have persecuted you, and those who have hurt you, above all in the indifference of the world, I ask you for forgiveness. Forgiveness."

Citing the "big heart" of Bangladesh that welcomed them in, Francis said: "Now I appeal to your big hearts, that you are able to grant us the forgiveness that we seek."

He called for continued aid for the refugees, and continued advocacy "so that their rights are recognized."

"We won't close our hearts. We won't look away," he said.

Francis had refrained from publicly raising the crisis or using the word Rohingya while in Myanmar out of diplomatic deference to his hosts. The Holy See only established diplomatic relations with Myanmar in May, and the local Catholic Church had begged Francis not to create waves — and possible problems for them — by using the term.

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