Once the Pope had finished, one of the Rohingya also said a prayer, after which the rest of the interreligious leaders present came up on stage and greeted them one-by-one.
According to sources on the ground, several of the Rohingya were weeping, and Cardinal D'Rozario himself was visibly moved as he embraced them.
The Pope's meeting with the Rohingya is significant, as their plight has been an underlying theme throughout his visit to both Burma and Bangladesh.
A largely Muslim ethnic group who reside in Burma’s Rakhine State, the Rohingya have faced a sharp increase in state-sponsored violence in their homeland, recently reaching staggering levels that have led the United Nations to declare the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
With an increase in persecution in their home country of Burma, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh, and are living in refugee camps.
Though the Vatican has said the crisis was not the original motive of the visit, the situation has been a constant focal point, with particular attention paid to whether or not the Pope would use the term “Rohingya” on the ground.
Despite widespread use of the word Rohingya in the international community, the term is controversial within Burma. The Burmese government refuses to use the term, and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship since a controversial law was enacted in 1982.
Because of the touchy nature of the term, Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, suggested to the Pope that he refrain from using the word in Burma, arguing that extremists in the area are trying to rouse the population by using the term, making the risk of a new interreligious conflict ever-more present, with Christians in the crossfire.
According to Bo, the correct term to use is “Muslims of the Rakhine State,” which the Pope has chosen to use until today.
Speaking to journalists present at the interreligious encounter before meeting the Pope, Mohammed Ayub, 32, a Rohingya Muslim whose 3-year-old son was killed by the Burmese military, said, “the Pope should say Rohingya. He is the leader of the world. He should say the word, as we are Rohingya.”
Similarly, Abdul Fyez, 35, who had a brother killed by the Burmese army, agreed that Francis ought to use the word, saying “we have been Rohingya for generations, my father and my grandfather.”
(Story continues below)
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Though the Pope's reasons for choosing to say the word today are unknown, it may have been in part the result of meeting the Rohingya personally and hearing their stories.
It's also not the first time he's chosen to say a controversial term. During his 2015 visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan, Francis called the 1915 massacre of some 1.5 million Armenian Christians a “genocide,” despite the risk of political throwback from Turkey, who has argued that the numbers are exaggerated.