Pope Francis arrived Monday in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, to begin a highly anticipated mission during which he is expected to try to ease tensions over persecution of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Francis, who was greeted by adoring crowds and a billboard reading “Bienvenido,” alluding to the pontiff’s Argentine origins, will travel Tuesday to the capital Naypyidaw, where he will meet with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto civilian leader, and President Htin Kyaw. In a late addition to his itinerary, Francis will also meet with Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who has overseen an anti-insurgency campaign that has driven the crisis.
The pope will then visit neighboring Bangladesh, where about one million Rohingya have sought refuge after several waves of violence committed by state security forces and Buddhist vigilantes. The crisis has created a dire humanitarian emergency in eastern Bangladesh and drawn accusations of ethnic cleansing. Francis is also expected to meet with a small delegation of Rohingya refugees in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Here’s what to know:
The World’s Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis
More than 624,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh since Aug.25, when insurgents fatally attacked Myanmar security officials and triggered a brutal anti-terror crackdown. Many arrived with stories of atrocities, including extrajudicial killings, mass rape and arson amid the mass cross-border movement has been dubbed the “world’s fastest growing refugee crisis” by the U.N. Myanmar’s military claims it is carrying out “clearance operations” in response to terror attacks, but the U.N. and the U.S. say the military is pursuing a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Bangladesh and Myanmar have signed a pact to begin repatriating Rohingya who can prove residency in Myanmar, but the vague agreement has been met with skepticism by human rights advocates and humanitarian workers who say it is still unsafe for them to return. Francis’ visit is significant for a number of reasons, one being his standing as a leading voice for the rights of refugees throughout the world. The Pope is widely expected to speak out on behalf of the stateless minority, which is deeply loathed within Buddhist Myanmar.
Will He Say the Name?
Speculation is rife over how Pope Francis will address the crisis, and whether he will use the word “Rohingya” to refer to the group. Though this is their preferred self-identifying term, many in Myanmar refer to them as “Bengali” to imply they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The mere use of the word has often been enough to incite protests led by Buddhist hardliners who claim the Rohingya are dangerous interlopers. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the top Catholic figure in Myanmar and a vocal advocate for the oppressed, has recently dialed back his own rhetoric; he also reportedly urged the Pope earlier this month to avoid using the term. But rights advocates have expressed hope that Francis will set a moral example by addressing the Rohingya’s plight head-on rather than opting for a diplomatic work-around.
“The Pope should forthrightly address the Rohingya crisis and respect the Rohingya’s right to self identify by publicly calling them by their preferred name,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, told TIME. “The Pope should remind those he meets that it’s critical that non-discrimination and building religious harmony be the rule in dealing with all religions in the country.”
A strong statement from Francis would not be unprecedented. In August, following an initial wave of violence that displaced 87,000 Rohingya, Francis released a statement decrying the “persecution” of “our Rohingya brothers” and calling for the restitution of “their full rights.” Francis issued a similar statement in February, referring to the Rohingya as “good people, peaceful people” and “our brothers and sisters.”
A Delicate Balance
Analysts warned, however, that focusing on the Rohingya’s suffering could risk further stoking tensions by upsetting Myanmar’s military establishment, which is seen as crucial to resolving the crisis, or the wider public, which often bears little sympathy for the Rohingya, having suffered decades of deprivation under Myanmar’s successive military regimes.
“It would be extremely important for the Pope to address the current crisis in Rakhine State,” says Benedict Rogers, the East Asia director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, given the “urgency and severity” of the crisis and the Pope’s enormous influence. Rogers added, however, that failing to recognizing Myanmar’s myriad other ethnic clashes could jeopardize the success of the peace-building mission. “All the peoples of Myanmar face a range of challenges, including conflict, repression and poverty, and religious intolerance and hate speech, and so the Pope needs to speak to the whole nation and bring a message of peace, justice and reconciliation for all,” Rogers said “That must definitely include the Rohingyas, but his message must address the whole country.”
Religious and communal conflict are particularly concerning in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist but is also home to Christian, Muslim, and Hindu communities. Christians made up 6.2% of the population, or some 3.1 million people, according to the country’s 2014 census, mostly among the ethnic minority Kachin, Chin, and Karen communities. There are also nearly 700,000 Catholics; as many as 150,000 of them are expected to travel to Yangon in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Pontiff, according to the Guardian.