CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 9 December 2017

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Plenty of advice for pope on Rohingya

HONG KONG (SE): One thing about being a well-known person of influence, or what the Japanese would call having a wide face, is that there are always plenty of people around ready to give you advice, even though much of it may be conflicting.
 
And Pope Francis is no exception. On the eve of his November 27 departure from Rome for the tension-stretched state of the Union of Myanmar, Pope Francis is receiving a plethora of advice on whether he should use the word of the moment, Rohingya, in reference to the flood of refugees that have fled government violence in the Rakhine State for the threatening safety of Bangladesh.
 
Rohingya, Muslims from Rakhine State or maybe even those people who have fled to Bangladesh are all options that have been put on the table for him to consider.
However, the further difficulty for Pope Francis in making up his mind is that much of this conflicting advice comes from well accredited places.
 
Reuters has reported that the former secretary of the United Nations (UN), Kofi Annan, says he should not. His advice is backed up by the archbishop of Yangon, Charles Cardinal Bo, who has long maintained that it would not be advisable.
 
Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch Asia, is of the opposite opinion, saying that under international law people have the right to maintain their identity and the Rohingya have precious little left apart from that.
 
These are all well weighted advice and not the rush of blood type that prompts individuals or organisations like the university college in England attended Myanmar’s democracy icon, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, when it stripped her photograph from its wall of honour in a rush of righteous anger so they could all feel better.
 
However, what the pope will say will remain a mystery until he arrives in Yangon, as the Vatican does not give out scripts of papal speeches ahead of time and Pope Francis is well known for sometimes acting in a manner contrary to the advice he receives.
 
He has uttered the word Rohingya in the past, referring to them by name in his weekly Sunday chat in St. Peter’s Square, where he asks for prayer for people and events he regards as being in desperate need.
 
At the same time, he has been bitten before, managing to upset Turkey by referring to the massacre of Armenians during World War I by the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
 
However, he is not giving anything away either, saying in a video of greeting to the people of Myanmar that his visit will be primarily pastoral and focussed on the Catholic communities of both countries.
 
“I come to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, a message of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace,” he said in paraphrasing what he says prior to every national papal visit. But he did add he would like to contribute to the struggle to build harmony and cooperation in the service of the common good.
 
Suu Kyi herself has been strongly criticised for failing to mention the Rohingya by name and not acting to defend them. However, Cardinal Bo has come to her defence, pointing to the powder keg situation in a nation where hot blooded populists have threatened to join the massacre if given the opportunity.
 
Pointing to the powerlessness of her situation, he also suggested that she did not attend a meeting of a UN in New York for fear that the influential and powerful military of her nation would not allow her to return to the country.
 
For her part, her assertion that a security situation must be dealt with because of the killing of some 30 military guards amounts to nothing but a massive overkill.
 
But together with the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi did organise an interfaith prayer service for peace in Yangon on October 10, an extremely brave and risky thing to do, but it worked, with over 30,000 people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds standing shoulder to shoulder to pray.
 
However the pope refers to the persecuted people, it is certain he will not remain silent on the issue.
 
Nevertheless, there is always room for pundits and Cardinal Bo is tipping that since both Myanmar and Bangladesh are on the papal schedule and both are struggling to establish a democracy that respects the rights of minorities, both religious and ethnic, that will be a major topic of his talks.
 
He adds that the differences are exacerbated by poverty and the difficulty of accessing extremely limited resources, a situation further worsened by climate change, which is raising its ugly head through the droughts, floods and increased power and frequency of cyclones.
 
Both countries have been plagued by political and ethnic tensions that have found religion to be an easy target to exploit for political gain.
 
But that is only one side of the story.
 
The Buddhist president of the Religions for Peace Interfaith Group, 74-year-old Myint Swe, says he is looking forward to the papal visit to Myanmar and believes that it will improve interfaith harmony and heal some of the wounds of the Rakhine crisis.
 
“We could not have imagined five years ago that the pope would visit Myanmar, but now the dream is true not only for Catholics, but also for the blessing and benefit of the majority of Buddhists,” UCAN quoted him as saying.
 
He said that he will certainly attend a public Mass that Pope Francis will offer on November 29 and join him in a prayer for peace and harmony in his country.
 
Myint Swe also pointed out that the cooperative spirit is already operating, as thousands of people are expected to descend on Yangon from the countryside and Buddhist monasteries and Protestant Churches have already opened their premises to accommodate them.
 
Father Joseph Mg Win, from the organising committee for the papal visit, said many religious leaders have offered their assistance.
 
He told UCAN that they are eager to contribute to the success of the pope’s visit to the country.
 
However, hardline elements stand unmoved, asking why the pope is visiting the country and telling him not to interfere in the internal politics of the nation. “There is no Rohingya, so why would he use the term,” one group said.
 
The grandson of Ne Win, the leader of a military coup that ended civilian government in Myanmar in 1961, dressed up as the pope for Halloween, which went viral on social media.
 
But Myint Swe believes that the pope can be trusted and if he does mention Rohingya, it will be to identify them as a people, not to carry a political message.”

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