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Pope Francis Addresses Rohingya Refugees By Name In Bangladesh


When Pope Francis was in Myanmar earlier this week, he did not talk about the Rohingya, and that disappointed many people who hoped he would condemn Myanmar's persecution of this Muslim minority. Today in Bangladesh, it was a different story. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on an emotional meeting between Francis and a group of Rohingya refugees.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: At the end of today's interfaith meeting in the garden of the archbishop's residence in Dhaka, Pope Francis met with a group of 12 men, two women and two young girls. The Rohingya Muslims had travelled from southern Bangladesh near the border with Myanmar, where they are sheltering in camps overflowing with some 620,000 refugees.

One by one, the Rohingyas approached the pope. The women lifted their face veils to be able to speak and stretched out their hands for Francis to hold. The pope was somber as he held the hands of each one. And he listened intently as they told him stories of their flight from burning villages, torture and rape. Francis blessed the men, women and girls one by one. And then, in improvised remarks, he addressed them as brothers and sisters and asked for their forgiveness for all the hurt and indifference they have experienced. He demanded that their rights be recognized.


POPE POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Let us not close our hearts. Let us not look the other way. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.

POGGIOLI: The pope was visibly moved as he showed his solidarity with victims of what the U.N. has said is a campaign of ethnic cleansing and the worst refugee crisis in decades.


POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) A tradition in your religion says that God took some salt and put it in water, which is the soul of all humans. These brothers and sisters carry within them the divine salt.

POGGIOLI: Human rights activists were strongly disappointed earlier this week by Pope Francis' silence on the Rohingya crisis. He had decided to heed the advice of Myanmar church leaders and refrain from calling the minority Muslim refugees by their name. The reasoning was that the Catholic community feared reprisals from Myanmar's military leaders and Buddhist nationalists who consider the refugees illegal aliens although the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations.

Myanmar's civilian leader, the former dissident and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been pilloried across the Western world for not having denounced the military crackdown. But Myanmar Catholic officials insist she does not have sufficient power to challenge the military and that she remains the only one who can steer the country in its fragile transition to democracy.

Earlier this week, responding to criticism of the pope's public silence, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke had said Francis' aim is to build bridges in discussions that sometimes take place behind closed doors, a suggestion the pope may have spoken out in favor of the Rohingya during his private meetings with Myanmar officials. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Dhaka.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMPPABEATS' "FAR AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.