Pope Francis called for “decisive” international action on the Rohingya refugee crisis as he began a visit to Bangladesh on Thursday, where more than 620,000 of the Muslim minority have sought sanctuary after fleeing violence in Myanmar.
The pope made the comments in a speech shortly after arriving from Myanmar, where he walked a diplomatic tightrope, staying away from allegations that the army is waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, despite pressure to publicly confront the incendiary issue.
“None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps,” he said.
“It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis, not only by working to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people, but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs,” the pope told Bangladeshi dignitaries and diplomats.
He praised Bangladesh for taking in the mass exodus across the border into overcrowded makeshift camps since a fresh outbreak of violence in Rakhine state in late August.
But as in Myanmar, he refrained from using the word “Rohingya”, instead referring to “refugees from Rakhine state”.
Pope Francis had been urged not to use the name in Myanmar to avoid provoking hardliner Buddhists and making the country’s Catholics a target.
Francis — the first pope to visit Bangladesh in 31 years — will spend three days in the mainly-Muslim country, which is grappling with a rise in Islamist extremism that has seen Catholics attacked for their faith.
In Dhaka he will meet some of the Rohingya refugees, whom he has described as his “brothers and sisters”, and lead a mass for Bangladesh’s tiny Catholic minority.