RANGOON—The sight of Pope Francis greeting about 100,000 Burmese pilgrims on Wednesday was deeply moving, even for a long-since-lapsed Catholic like myself. Some of the pilgrims had journeyed for days down dirt roads and dilapidated mountain highways to reach the weather-beaten pavilions of Kyaikkasan Grounds, which once held a racetrack frequented by Burma’s moneyed elite. The first pilgrims had begun assembling at midnight and had sweated through a stifling morning, but the arrival of Pope Francis dispelled the torpor. Waving the flags of Burma and the Vatican, the faithful cheered as the pontiff graced them with his customary benevolent wave.
Two years ago, the Catholic Church celebrated its 500th anniversary in Burma and the first ever appointment of a Burmese cardinal. This year, Burma established formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See for the first time, following a meeting between de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Pope Francis. In another time, Wednesday’s mass would have been regarded as the pinnacle of the country’s first-ever papal visit.
Instead, it has been enveloped by the pall of the humanitarian crisis in Burma’s west, where more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled a military crackdown in the wake of militant attacks three months ago. Reports of indiscriminate violence, wanton destruction of Muslim villages, and systematic rape of Rohingya women have outraged the international community; both U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres have denounced the abuses as “ethnic cleansing.” Suu Kyi’s status as a human-rights icon has been irreversibly tarnished. Vatican sources have now told the media they believed the trip should have been postponed, as the weeks leading up to the pope’s visit became a referendum on whether he should speak up for the victims.
So far, he has not. Meeting on Wednesday evening with the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the supreme clerical body for Burma’s Buddhist majority, the pontiff appealed to the nation’s leading monks to combat prejudice and intolerance, but left out any specific reference to the recent violence.
“You don’t counter racism and prejudice by backing down to it,” Mark Farmaner, director of the London-based Burma Campaign U.K. lobby group, told me. “Already nationalists are gloating about the pope not using the word ‘Rohingya.’ His failure to use the word will only embolden those who want to expel all Rohingya from Myanmar.”
The decision to avoid even mentioning the Rohingya by name, activists say, is a surrender to decades of repression under successive Burmese governments. It is axiomatic among much of the nation’s leadership—and largely among the wider public—that the Rohingya are recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Despite members of the Rohingya community documenting that their presence in Burma dates back generations, attitudes have hardened against the minority; even direct reference to the Rohingya has become inflammatory as authorities commit to their erasure from the historical record. A statement from the U.S. Embassy that used the word prompted a rowdy protest from Buddhist hardline groups last year, while in 2015 five Muslim men were jailed for printing a calendar that included quotes from former Prime Minister U Nu affirming the existence of the Rohingya.
This is the turbulent historical moment in which Pope Francis has become embroiled. Though he has spoken in support of the Rohingya before, referring to them as “brothers and sisters” of the Catholic flock, nationalist groups had warned of unrest if he were to refer to the community directly. These Buddhist hardliners have fomented the idea of an international conspiracy in the service of a Muslim takeover of Burma by stealth, rhetoric that has recently been echoed by senior members of the government.
In this environment, senior church figures in Burma counselled the pope to be diplomatic—including Burma’s first cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, whose outspokenness on the persecution of the Rohingya has receded as the hatred against them has intensified.
Speaking out on behalf of the Muslim minority, some believe, might have endangered the Christian minority. One young member of a Protestant congregation told me that, while she appreciated the pope’s “message of interfaith unity and peace when bigotry is at its peak,” a strident statement on this issue risked provoking a wider backlash against the Christian community.
“We have to think about how the Buddhist majority sees us,” she told me, asking for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “They see us collectively as Christians, regardless of the degree of fraternity that actually exists between Catholics and Protestants. The pope, I’m sure, is also aware of it. … [A strident statement] will only confirm the nationalist Buddhists’ fear-mongering rhetoric about how the minority religions are out to get them.”
The status of Burma’s three million Christians, a small minority among the country’s 52 million people, has long been precarious. Though the Catholic faith traces its origins in Burma to a group of Portuguese settlers in the 16th century, the country’s colonization by the U.K. 300 years later brought missionaries to the country en masse. They found zealous converts in the country’s northern and eastern hinterlands, in areas that had resisted the control of the Buddhist royal dynasty that collapsed after successive wars against the British. During World War II, while the country’s future independence leaders flirted with and then fought against the Japanese occupation of Burma, the Christian communities on Burma’s borders were steadfast in their support of the British Empire.
An uneasy and often antipathetic relationship between the country’s Buddhist majority and myriad Christian communities has simmered ever since. Three years after the war ended, celebrations over Burma’s independence were marred when Karen National Union, a largely Christian armed force in the country’s west, took up arms against the new government in Rangoon. Civil wars have flared across the country since then, often along ethnic and religious lines. Burma’s postcolonial government, bowing to pressure from an increasingly vocal monastic community, declared Buddhism the state religion in 1961. The outrage this decision provoked among Burma’s Christian minority helped justify a military coup d’état the next year, ushering in nearly five decades of military rule.
Following this year’s refugee exodus, Suu Kyi and other leaders have denied any suggestion that the violence against the Rohingya is motivated by animosity toward Islam. Several interfaith rallies have been organized by the government to depict a country where religious harmony abounds. Min Aung Hlaing, the powerful chief of the armed forces, told Pope Francis during a Monday meeting that religious discrimination in Burma was nonexistent.
Yet the reality for many outside the Buddhist faith is starkly different. Numerous towns across Burma have been rocked by anti-Muslim pogroms in recent years that have left scores dead. More than 100,000 people, overwhelmingly Christian, have been displaced by a six-year civil war in the country’s north; Burma’s military has worked to block humanitarian aid to many of those forced to flee.
In opting for the pragmatic bromides of peace and reconciliation, the pontiff has held back from calling any of these evils by their name.
Perhaps it is fitting that as Pope Francis took his seat on the dais during Wednesday’s mass, introductory rites concluded with a reading from the Book of Daniel. In the court of Babylon, the prophet Daniel upbraids the king for his lack of humility before the Lord: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” Many outside Burma have found the pope wanting. But he is not the only leader to have been tarnished by a perceived surrender of principle to the vagaries of diplomacy.
It occurs to me that the doctrine of papal infallibility bears uncomfortable similarities to the expectations we place on secular heroes like Suu Kyi. If that’s the case, it follows that the principles by which we judge both should be the same. Pope Francis has now arrived in Bangladesh; he will meet with Rohingya refugees and bear witness to their suffering. Meanwhile, refugees continue to stream across the border. Suu Kyi has yet to mention them by name.
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