Catholics hope Pope talks Rohingya, climate in Bangladesh

Pope Francis is welcomed as he arrives at Yangon International Airport, Myanmar on Nov 27, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA (AFP) - Dhaka's archbishop is confident that Pope Francis will use a rare visit to Bangladesh to underscore the plight of Rohingya refugees and those displaced by climate change.

Cardinal Patrick D'Rozario, the highest-ranking member of the Catholic clergy in Bangladesh, said Monday (Nov 27) the pontiff would bring "inspiration and love" to a region where millions are afflicted by conflict, poverty and rising sea levels.

The papal visit was not just for Bangladesh's tiny Catholic community, he said, but for all those facing hardship in the impoverished Muslim-majority nation of 160 million people.

"Everyone has these questions in mind: Will the Pope talk about the climate change? Will he talk about the Rohingyas? Will he say something about the workers of Rana plaza disaster?" he said, the latter referring to a 2013 building collapse, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

"We have high hopes he will talk about all these issues, which is very realistic. We truly
hope he will respond."

The 80-year-old pope has been vocal about the rights of the poor and climate change, a pressing issue in low-lying riverine Bangladesh where coastal villagers are already being forced from their homes by rising sea levels.

But the persecution of the Rohingya - a Muslim minority from Myanmar's Rakhine State - has been pitched as the focal point of his visit.

More than 620,000 of the group have fled mainly Buddhist Myanmar for Bangladesh since August, amid a campaign of army violence described by US and UN officials as ethnic cleansing. Most now live in squalid camps in Bangladesh where a shortage of aid and critical supplies has created a humanitarian emergency.

Francis has championed the rights of refugees around the world and suggested he would raise the persecution of the Rohingya during his highly sensitive South Asia tour. He has called the Rohingya his "brothers and sisters" in repeated entreaties to ease their plight.

Arriving in Myanmar Monday - marking the first ever papal visit to the country - Francis met with the powerful army chief accused of overseeing the brutal campaign to drive the Rohinyga out.

But during the 15-minute meeting in Yangon, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told the
pope that "Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all" according to a Facebook post published by the general's office.

Francis will on Tuesday (Nov 28) hold talks with Myanmar's de-facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. He will travel to Bangladesh on Thursday, where he will meet a group of Rohingya in Dhaka.

D'Rozario said Francis would also conduct a mass-prayer at Suhrawardi Udyan, a colonial-era green park in the capital, with at least 80,000 Catholics expected to join. It marks the first papal tour of Bangladesh since Pope John Paul II visited in 1986.

Christians make up less than 0.5 per cent of Bangladesh but the minority has played a prominent role in its history. Even today, schools and hospitals run by Catholic missionaries provide a lifeline for poor communities.

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