Pope in Bangladesh, continues diplomatic tightrope walk

Pope Francis reviews an honor guard as he arrives at Dhaka's international airport, Bangladesh, on Nov. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

DHAKA, Bangladesh (RNS) — Pope Francis has arrived in Bangladesh, praising the country for welcoming refugees from neighboring Myanmar, though he still refrained from identifying them as Rohingya Muslims.

Bangladesh is the second and final leg of one of the most politically fraught trips of Francis’ papacy, where his outspoken concern for refugees has been tempered by sensitivities on the ground.

In a speech Thursday (Nov. 30) before President Abdul Hamid and other government officials at the Presidential Palace, Francis praised Bangladesh for welcoming “refugees from Rakhine state” and called on other nations to help deal with the crisis.

“None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps,” he said.

On Friday, Francis will host an interfaith peace meeting in the garden of the archbishop of Dhaka’s residence at which a small group of Rohingya Muslims is expected attend.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar, and Francis’ visit to both countries this week put him at the center of a major humanitarian crisis. 

A more cautious pontiff than the 80-year-old Francis might have avoided such a crisis and stayed home. But this pope has shown himself willing to take risks, and he’s had to walk a diplomatic tightrope act, particularly in the country formerly known as Burma, never before visited by a pope.

In the Buddhist-majority nation, many are fearful of Islam and rather than see the Rohingya as long-established citizens, they treat them as recent arrivals from Bangladesh and also as potential terrorists. 

Even using the word “Rohingya” is considered inflammatory. Francis has so far avoided using the term during this trip even though he has done so on more than one occasion at the Vatican.  

That led to criticism from some rights groups and Western commentators, particularly given that the United Nations had described the Rohingya’s treatment as ethnic cleansing. 

Vatican diplomacy is not infallible,” Greg Burke, Holy See spokesman, said in response to the criticisms. But he stressed the pope’s nonuse of the word did not negate what he had said in the past about the Rohingya and what he might have said in private, hinting that the pontiff did raise their plight in his meetings.

The Rohingya suffered along with other ethnic groups at the hands of Myanmar’s military, which from 1962-2011 ruled the country and still retains a powerful role.

While many outsiders hope Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will be able to lead a full transition to democracy, the generals are still in charge of areas such as home affairs, borders and Myanmar’s vast natural resources.

Francis has firsthand experience of living under a military regime in Argentina, and when the generals asked at the last minute for a meeting he agreed.

The Vatican said the meeting with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and three officials from Myanmar’s bureau of special operations took place on Monday at the residence of the Myanmar archbishop and lasted about 15 minutes.

Francis also met with Suu Kyi. While she has been criticized internationally for her handling of the Rohingya matter, inside the country she is widely seen as the best hope for shepherding Myanmar to democracy. This is also a view strongly held by the Catholic Church on the ground, whose leaders advised the pope not to use the term Rohingya, arguing it could spark protests. 

The U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat, was one of many envoys who also attended Francis’ speech in Dhaka, and she said his words are helping to raise awareness of the crisis. 

“To me the most important thing is do they (the Rohingya) have a voice? And for everyone who bears witness to the suffering that they have been experiencing, we help give them, and we help amplify, their voice,” she said.  

(Christopher Lamb is The Tablet’s Rome correspondent and is traveling on the papal plane. He is a contributor to RNS.)

About the author

Christopher Lamb


Click here to post a comment

  • He is carrying there to carry out Greatest Commandment, not the Great Commission. In doing so he follows “Preach the Gospel. Use words if you have to”. His actions speak much louder than words. Or are you an advocate of forced baptism??

  • I think the pope is a fraud, to be honest with you because I would like to see him, just once, quoted as saying the most important thing is to have a relationship with Jesus, and everything else comes after that, but he seems to like politics more. Sad really.

  • He is the head of state of the Vatican so politics is part of his mission. Face it, you despise anyone who isn’t a Christian as you define it.

  • Not true. But for someone, who I am told, is supposed to be Christ’s representative here on Earth, and to not have read one article about him promoting becoming a Christian, is quite suspect. What? His mere presence is supposed to draw people to the Lord?

  • We saw the Christian love given to non-Christians in Europe for the last 2,000 years, the inquisition, the decimation of the Native Americans, the African slave trade to the New World, pogroms, genocides, wars, witch hunts, etc.

  • This will answer your reply here and the one below to Jim Johnson, although it will be a waste of my time as you convey a complete closed mindedness. In the first place, the pope is a Jesuit. In casse you don’t catch it, the word is composed mostly of the word “Jesus”. These men spend anywhere from 10 to 15 years studying and being “formed” to the model of the life of Jesus before they are even ordained and then more years of study and formation before they profess their final vows. Their superiors make sure they have an intense personal relationship with Jesus. Pope Francis spends about 4 hours a day in intense prayer, as in a personal conversation with Jesus. He practices the Ignation “examen” every day in which a Jesuit is trained to ask himself what they are doing for Jesus, what more does Jesus want of them, and opening their hearts and minds to truly hear Jesus. The Jesuits have been at discerning their personal relationship with Jesus and living it out since the beginning. If Pope Francis was not convinced of his personal relationship with Jesus he would not be risking his life going to places like the Central African Republic where the UN told him they could not gurantees his safety or to Myanmar and Bengladesh where he is now trying to encourage people to find peace and harmony. Here is a quote from Pope Francis about personal relationship with Jesus: It is about “Our own constantly renewed experience of savoring Christ’s friendship and his message. It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to” (Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 266). You are just absolutely wrong to say he is a fraud and does not say that a personal relationship with Jesus is wrong. I suspect you picked up on fake news accounts trying to discredit him by saying this. They have been thoroughly debunked.

  • WEIRD!! This is the example of our Pope…. Cover the Cross with your hand in the photos so that you do not appear too Christian!

  • He is not “covering the cross so you do not appear too Christian”! That’s plan b.s. He often puts his hand up to his cross so it does not swing when he is walking, sometimes to touch it in prayer but not to hide it. Sometimes he his holding his hand over his heart in respect while a nation’s anthem is being played. From the fact that the soldiers in the picture are saluting and all looking the same direction, that is probably what is happening. Besides he is the pope, the most visible representative of Christianity in the world! He, by that fact, cannot not appear too Christian! This meme of him “hiding” his cross is a total lie and fake news perpetrated by those whose intense hate for this man shows no bounds.

  • As I stated in my previous comments, you are close minded. Nothing I can say to you will change your mind about Pope Francis. There are none so blind as she who will not see. Willful blindness is malicious stupidity.

  • And the pope is still not trying to draw people to Jesus
    James 2:16 – 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that?” As He should be helping them with their spiritual needs, first. What is the sense in visiting these poor people and then letting them go to Hell with no attempt to help them?

    The man may possibly be representing the RCC, but he is not representing Christ – two totally, different entities.

  • Your comment makes absolutely no sense. Your quote from James indicates one SHOULD meet dire physical needs FIRST! It is what Mt:25 is all about! That is an absolute insult and completely cold hearted to insist to some poor starving person that first they have to listen to you nannering away about “ Come to Jesus””. If a person is starving, thirsty, cold or naked, they ARE Jesus and your first duty as a Christian is to help them! YOU WILL BE JUDGED ON THIS!! The pope does this in myriad ways. I am not going to list them because you will not believe me anyway. He also does nothing but help people with their spiritual needs EVERY DAY. And, yes, he is acknowledge by all the leaders of the main Christian denominations as the major representative of Christianity in the world. I could find quotes from them but you will not believe it anyway. With you it’s a case of “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts”. As I said, malicious ignorance. I need to figure out how to block you…

  • My quote from James was showing how the pope didn’t even meet that need, but said be fed and walked on.
    There is nothing, nothing he did to help these people. I have another article where he even states he cannot help them.
    “”Maybe we can’t do much for you, but your tragedy has a place in our hearts,” he told them.” (
    He didn’t offer Jesus love, salvation, or the blessings one derives from belonging to Jesus. He played politics, instead of showing the love of Christ. He should be ashamed.
    More important than food, is for one to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. It won’t do you any good to have a full belly and die in Hell (See the parable about Lazarus and the Rich man. Luke 16)
    Your pope didn’t offer them food. He offered them nothing but his presence -that is what God will judge, my friend.

    When with the Jews, he hide the Cross under the belt and there is not much wind in doors in two of these photos!
    Another one in the Synagogue:

    Hope the examples are fair enough to your eyes.

    Why he has not answer the Dubbia and is inviting adulterous people to have communion even homosexuals?

  • So you cite two ultra sectarian Evangelical Protestant sources here. Ones likely to be critical.of Catholicism in general and rather hostile to the current Pope.

  • 500+ Christian sects demonstrate how much ones mileage varies on that front.

    Of course you will claim your specific sect and beliefs are the only Bible adherent Christian Church which exists and all others are apostate.

    Sectarian arrogance drips from your post.

  • Sandi is first and foremost a troll. Your last sentence is the most telling of whom you are addressing.

  • The cumberbund around his waist is not a tight fit and can slip up and down and gape. When he bends or moves his pectoral cross can easily slip behind it. It is just pure right wing Trad trash to say he purposefully “hides” it. I can show you hundreds of pictures where he is among nonchristians and his cross is plainly in view. And it is total B. S. That he is “ inviting” “ adulterous people” and “homosexuals” to Communion. More trad trash talk. Are you 100% pure and holy totally sin free when you go to Communion? I think not when you insist on spreading a caluminous lies. Better go to Confession 5 minutes before you receive because I doubt you go any longer than 5 minutes without thinking nasty thoughts about Pope Francis!!

  • Yep, I am sure you believe your sect is the only true Christian one and your interpretation of a the Bible is the only one which matters. I am sure it fills you with pride. But you mistake belief with something they others need to take seriously.

    “Either you believe what is written in the Holy Bible or you do not. Its not that complicated.”

    Translation: my opinion is the only one which exists or matters.

  • Which would make me far more honest about such things than yourself.

    You are not posing a counter-argument here. 🙂

  • Well, look, we will have to start to take what is true and that is that the Vatican is the Prostitute described in the Book of Revelation but of course, and it is written also there, that God’s people are inside it… so the Pope is God’s people and NOT the Antichrist as ignorant protestants want to believe.

  • ” that is that the Vatican is the Prostitute described in the Book of Revelation”

    An opinion not shared by about close 1.2 billion Christians in the world.

    Let me guess, you’re a Seventh Day Adventist?

  • Don’t be ridiculous! I am a Catholic from line of birth … but if you are interest in studding a bit go here: you will find reasons as why is like that, in the section of articles, but if you still dreaming that we are NOT in the end times do not bother.

  • I told you I am a Catholic and I do not believe in that nonsense of the rapture… the one who invented that teaching is an ignorant of the ways things are going to be.