As far as the Catholic Church in Myanmar, the country has 16 Catholic dioceses and a total of 29 living bishops, both active and retired. In 2015 Pope Francis appointed Myanmar's first-ever cardinal, giving a red hat to Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon.
Just this past year, in the November 19, 2016, consistory, the Pope made a similar gesture toward Bangladesh, naming Archbishop Patrick D'Rozario of Dhaka the first-ever cardinal for the Muslim-majority country.
Listed among the top 10 most populated countries in the world, with roughly 163 million citizens, Bangladesh has a minority Catholic population of around 0.3 percent, while the majority of the population, about 90 percent, is Muslim.
In addition to Francis' affinity for the global margins, another key element of the trip close to his heart is the plight of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya people, whom he has spoken of often and is likely a key reason for his symbolic decision to travel to both Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The Rohingya are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group largely from the Rakhine state of Burma, in west Myanmar. Since clashes began in 2012 between the state's Buddhist community and the long-oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority, some 125,000 Rohingya have been displaced, while more than 100,000 have fled Myanmar by sea.
In order to escape forced segregation from the rest of the population inside rural ghettos, many of the Rohingya – who are not recognized by the government as a legitimate ethnic group or as citizens of Myanmar – have made perilous journeys by sea in hope of evading persecution.
In 2015, a number of Rohingya people – estimated to be in the thousands – were stranded at sea for several months with dwindling supplies while Southeastern nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia refused to take them in.
However, since last year around 87,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh amid a military crackdown on insurgents in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, giving way to horrifying stories of rapes, killings and arson by security forces. Almost 100 new deaths have been reported in recent days amid fresh clashes between the Rohingya and Myanmar's army.
In Bangladesh, however, the Rohingya have had little relief, since they are not recognized as refugees in the country. Since last October, many who had fled to Bangladesh have been detained and forced to return to the neighboring Rakhine state.
Pope Francis and the Rohingya
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Pope Francis has spoken out on behalf of the Rohingya on several occasions, first drawing attention to their plight during an audience in 2015 with more than 1,500 members of the International Eucharistic Youth Movement.
"Let's think of those brothers of ours of the Rohingya," he told attendees. "They were chased from one country and from another and from another. When they arrived at a port or a beach, they gave them a bit of water or a bit to eat and were there chased out to the sea."
This, he said, "is called killing. It's true. If I have a conflict with you and I kill you, it's war."
He brought the topic up again a month later in an interview with a Portuguese radio station, and he has consistently spoken out on behalf of the Rohingya in Angelus addresses, daily Masses and general audiences.
In his Feb. 8 general audience, Pope Francis asked pilgrims to pray with him "for our brother and sister Rohingya. They were driven out of Myanmar, they go from one place to another and no one wants them."
"They are good people, peaceful people; they aren't Christians, but they are good. They are our brothers and sisters. And they have suffered for years," he said, noting that often members of the ethnic minority have been "tortured and killed" simply for carrying forward their traditions and Muslim faith.