DHAKA (AFP, REUTERS) - Pope Francis referred to refugees in Bangladesh as “Rohingya” on Friday (Nov 1), using the politically sensitive name for the persecuted minority for the first time on his Asia tour after meeting a group of them in Dhaka.
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” he said in an improvised remark after meeting 16 refugees brought to the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka from their camps in Cox’s Bazar near the border with Myanmar.
“In the name of all of those who have persecuted you, hurt you, I ask forgiveness. I appeal to your large hearts to give us the forgiveness that we are asking,” Pope Francis said after the emotional encounter.
More than 625,000 Rohingya Muslims have run away to Bangladesh since late August following a crackdown by the Myanmar military in response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants. Most Rohingya are stateless and seen as illegal immigrants by Buddhist majority Myanmar.
The pope looked sombre as each member of the group, which included 12 men and four women, including two young girls, told him their stories through interpreters at the end of the gathering.
On the first leg of his current trip, in Myanmar, he did not use the word Rohingya to describe the refugees. The term“Rohingya” is disputed by the Yangon government and military.
Friday's meeting comes a day after Pope Francis urged the world to take "decisive measures" to resolve the crisis.
Earlier Friday, Pope Francis led a giant open-air mass in Dhaka. Amid tight security, the pope, the first pontiff to visit Muslim-majority Bangladesh in 31 years, arrived in a locally-made popemobile - a pickup truck covered in glass - at Suhrawardy Udyan park, where nearly 100,000 people waited to celebrate the mass.
Buses of faithful came from all over the country. Many queued for hours to get into the park guarded by thousands of security forces.
Ms Suborna Costa, 34, hoped the prayers of the 80-year-old pontiff would help end her family woes.
Ms Costa's husband is ill, her brother went missing in Turkey after he illegally tried to enter Italy, and one of her sisters has been unable to speak since childhood.
"For years we don't have any good news in my family. My parents have been in shock since we lost contact with our brother," she said.
"I have been eagerly waiting for this day since his visit was announced several months ago. He is a saintly man and above any sin," said Ms Costa.
Holding a granddaughter, 60-year-old widow Pronita Mra stood in the queue for three hours after arriving from a remote north-eastern village near the Indian border.
"I feel like I am blessed to join the Pope's prayers. I'll pray for my late husband and parents so that they go to heaven. I hope the Pope will pray for peace and harmony among all communities in Bangladesh," she said.
The worries of the Rohingya masses who have packed camps on the Myanmar border have dominated the papal tour however.
Pope Francis arrived in Dhaka on Thursday from Myanmar, where he walked a diplomatic tightrope, publicly avoiding allegations that the army is waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.
He has praised Bangladesh for giving refuge to the Rohingya who have flooded in, bringing stories of horrific abuse at the hands of the Myanmar military and local Buddhist mobs, including rape, arson and murder.
He called on the world to offer “immediate material assistance” to Bangladesh, an already overcrowded country where one in four lives below the the poverty line, to address their “urgent human needs”.
"This has been done at no little sacrifice. It has also been done before the eyes of the whole world," he said, calling on other countries to offer "immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs".
Although the influx has slowed, hundreds of Rohingya refugees are still crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar every day, according to the United Nations.
Pope Francis will also meet Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders during his three days in the country.
His visit comes days after the disappearance of a Catholic priest in the same village where suspected Islamist extremists hacked a Catholic grocer to death last year.
Walter William Rosario, 40, had been making arrangements for some 300 Catholics to travel to Dhaka for the
Since 2015 at least three Christians, including two converts from Islam, have been hacked to death in attacks blamed on Islamist militants.
Christians make up less than 0.5 percent of Bangladesh’s population of 160 million and community leaders say some have left as it becomes more difficult to practise their faith openly.