Pope apologizes to Rohingya refugees for 'indifference of the world'

Pope Francis has asked for forgiveness from Rohingya Muslim refugees for all the hurt they have endured, and pronounced the word "Rohingya" that he had so assiduously avoided only days earlier in Myanmar.

On visit to Bangladesh, Pope blesses group of Rohingya Muslims in public show of solidarity

Pope Francis meets Rohingya Muslims refugees from Myanmar during an interfaith and ecumenical meeting for peace in the garden of the archbishop's residence, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Friday. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

Pope Francis has asked for forgiveness from Rohingya Muslim refugees for all the hurt they have endured, and pronounced the word "Rohingya" that he had so assiduously avoided only days earlier in Myanmar.

In a touching encounter Friday, Francis greeted and blessed a group of refugees, grasping their hands and listening to their stories in a show of public solidarity.

He apologized for the "indifference of the world" to their plight.

"The presence of God today is also called 'Rohingya,'" he said.

Refugee camps overflowing

The 16 Rohingya travelled to Dhaka from Cox's Bazar, the district bordering Myanmar where refugee camps are overflowing with more than 620,000 Rohingya who have fled what the UN says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar's military.

The campaign has included the burning of Rohingya villages. Fleeing Rohingya have described rape and shootings by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs that left them no option but to make the dangerous and sometimes deadly journey through jungles and by sea to Bangladesh.

The Myanmar government has denied any such campaign is underway. The army says "clearance operations" are targeting militants who attacked security positions in August.

Myanmar's government and most of the Buddhist majority recoil from the term Rohingya, saying the members of the Muslim minority are "Bengalis" who migrated illegally from Bangladesh. Myanmar doesn't acknowledge them as a local ethnic group and won't give them citizenship, even though they have lived in Myanmar for generations.

One by one, each one of the refugees approached the Pope at the end of Friday's event. Francis grasped their hands and listened intently as they recounted their experiences to him through an interpreter.

He blessed one little girl, placing his hand on her head, and grasped the shoulder of a young man.

'Your tragedy has a place in our hearts'

The women who approached him pushed aside their headscarves so they could speak, offering their hands out for him to hold.

"Maybe we can't do much for you, but your tragedy has a place in our hearts," Francis told them.

The Pope greeted each of the Rohingya Muslims and listened to their stories. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

His voice trembling with emotion, he continued: "In the name of all those who persecute you, who have persecuted you, and those who have hurt you, above all in the indifference of the world, I ask you for forgiveness. Forgiveness."

Citing the "big heart" of Bangladesh that welcomed them in, Francis said: "Now I appeal to your big hearts, that you are able to grant us the forgiveness that we seek."

He called for continued aid for the refugees, and continued advocacy "so that their rights are recognized."

"We won't close our hearts. We won't look away," he said.

Francis had refrained from publicly raising the crisis or using the word Rohingya while in Myanmar out of diplomatic deference to his hosts.

Human rights organizations and Rohingya themselves had voiced disappointment at Francis's public silence, given he had previously denounced the persecution of "our Rohingya brothers and sisters" at the Vatican. The Vatican defended it as diplomatically necessary, and stressed that his silence in public didn't negate what he had said in the past, or what he was saying in private.

Prior to the Pope's comments, the Rohingya who had travelled from Cox's Bazar, urged him to recognize their identity publicly.

"He is the leader of the world. He should say the word as we are Rohingya," said Mohammed Ayub, 32, whose three-year-old son was killed by the Myanmar military.

Abdul Fyez, 35, whose brother was killed, agreed Francis should acknowledge them. "We have been Rohingya for generations, my father and my grandfather."

Pope Francis and other religious leaders attend the interfaith and ecumenical meeting for peace Friday. (L'Osservatore Romano/Associated Press)

Francis's encounter with the refugees came on a day that began with a mass to ordain 16 new priests.

Small Catholic community

Bangladesh's tiny Catholic community represents a fraction of one per cent of the majority Muslim population of 160 million. Despite its small size, the Catholic Church runs a network of schools, orphanages and clinics, and has enjoyed relative freedom in its work, though Christian missionaries say they have received letters threatening dire consequences if they continue to spread Christianity.

In his homily ordaining 16 new priests, Francis thanked those who came out for the mass, noting that some people had travelled two days to attend.

"Thank you for your generosity," Francis said. "This indicates the love that you have for the church."

Late in the day, the Catholic community received welcome news: A priest who had gone missing on the eve of Francis's arrival was found in a northeastern district and was returned to Dhaka.

Khairul Fazal, a local police chief in Sylhet, said Rev. Walter William Rosario was picked up at a bus counter. It wasn't immediately clear what happened to him, but earlier reports suggested he might have been kidnapped given his family reported receiving ransom calls.

Trades popemobile for rickshaw

Early in the day, Francis waved to crowds from the backseat of one of Bangladesh's typical bicycle-pulled carts en route Friday to a meeting of interfaith leaders at the residence of Dhaka's archbishop.

Bangladeshi dancers serenaded him as he made his way to the stage for the meeting with Rohingya refugees.

Francis has shunned the bullet-proof Popemobiles of his predecessors, opting instead for open-sided vehicles so he can personally greet the crowds when he goes on foreign trips. In South Asia, that has meant a few spins in modified golf carts.

Francis isn't the first pope to ride a rickshaw, however. St. John Paul II rode in one when he visited Bangladesh in 1986.