Pope Francis on Monday began the most fraught apostolic visit of his pontificate thus far, to Burma, where a Buddhist majority is waging a pogrom against the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.
The main purpose of the visit, according to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is to “encourage” the tiny Catholic communities in Burma and next-door Bangladesh. But long before the pontiff’s chartered Alitalia plane took off from Rome, he was being barraged with conflicting advice on how to address the Rohingya crisis.
There were those, such as Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch, who asked Pope Francis to forcefully denounce the anti-Rohingya campaign, which the Trump administration and the United Nations consider state-directed ethnic cleansing. According to credible reports, the Burmese military has resorted to systematic rape, among other methods, to drive some 600,000 Rohingya from their homes in Burma’s Rakhine State into Bangladesh. These gruesome realities, wrote New York Times, would put the Pope’s “status as the world’s moral compass” to the test during his visit.
But others, such as Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the archbishop of Yangon, have warned the Pope to tread carefully. Cardinal Bo, by all accounts a sound and inspiring pastor, has urged Pope Francis not to use “Rohingya,” a term that Burmese authorities reject (Buddhist nationalists regard the Rohingya as “Bengali interlopers”). Cardinal Bo himself pointedly avoids saying Rohingya, and he has used the rather euphemistic term “migration” to describe what is happening in Rakhine State.
You might say the 266th successor of Peter has a problem from hell, and Roman Catholics face a bedeviling pair of questions: Will Pope Francis diminish his moral and political stature if he sounds muted notes as a minister amid ethnic cleansing? And are Cardinal Bo, and other churchmen who are counseling caution, apologists for the junta?
The answer is no, on both counts. There is no denying the Pope’s humane concern for the Rohingya. Previously, he has not only used the “R”-word but has spoken out against their persecution at Burmese hands “simply because they uphold their culture and Muslim faith.” As for Cardinal Bo, he has long been an outspoken advocate for democratization and minority rights in Burma. The real challenge, then, is how to deploy the Petrine Office to save lives and bring peace to a land riven by ancient ethnic and sectarian hatreds.
The Pope doesn’t lead a traditional nation-state to begin with, and the Holy See’s diplomatic leverage is especially limited in an isolated Asian country that would sooner incur the wrath of the international community than cease waging ethno-sectarian war. It would do the Rohingya no good for the Pope to antagonize junta leaders who are oblivious to world opinion. Fiery rhetoric might satisfy Roth, et al, but it could also endanger Burma’s 700,000 Catholics at a time of majoritarian, nationalist frenzy.
Cardinal Bo and his allies, moreover, argue that the only viable alternative to the junta on the Burmese political horizon is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the former dissident and Nobel laureate who serves as the country’s de facto leader. Suu Kyi’s reputation in the West has taken a nosedive lately, over her shameful refusal to speak out for the Rohingyas. Even so, Cardinal Bo’s argument is compelling: Who else could restrain the junta? Is the U.S. or the European Union prepared to launch a military intervention to stop the ethnic cleansing?
Nor does caution equate silence. In a message posted to Facebook ahead of his trip, the Pope called on the Burmese people to recognize that “all of us are God’s children.” This conviction–so simple yet so profound–is at the root of human rights, and it is one of the most powerful weapons in the Church’s moral arsenal. Pope Francis commands no divisions, but he knows a thing or two about dealing with problems from hell.