The Pope In Myanmar. The Violent Face of Buddhism - Tidningen Kulturen

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August 28 the Vatican press office made the official announcement of the journey that Pope Francis will make to Myanmar and Bangladesh from November 30 to December 2.
Curiously, however, the day before, at the end of the Sunday Angelus, Francis got into a scrape with the first of the two countries. He said, partly reading and partly improvising, the following words, absent from the text provided for journalists beforehand:

But in Myanmar the persecuted also include Christians of the Kachin and Chin ethnic groups, in the northern part of the country, and of the Karen and Karenni in the east. There is no counting the number of churches that have been destroyed In recent years, the villages put to fire and sword, the tens of thousands of people forced to flee.


“Sad news has come about the persecution of a religious minority, our Rohingya brothers. I would like to express all my nearness to them. And let us all ask the Lord to save them and to raise up men and women of good will in their aid, who will give them their full rights. Let us pray for our Rohingya brothers.”

In the subsequent hours, the reactions to these words were, in Myanmar, decidedly negative. Not only in the government-controlled media, which do not even tolerate the term “Rohingya” being used for the Muslims who inhabit the Rakhine region on the border with Bangladesh, for years the victims of a ferocious persecution, but also on the part of representatives of the tiny local Catholic Church.

Raymond Sumlut Gam, bishop of Banmaw and former director of Caritas Myanmar, stated to Asia News:

“We are afraid that the pope does not have sufficiently accurate information and is releasing statements that do not reflect reality. To affirm that the Rohingya are ‘persecuted’ could create serious tensions in Myanmar.”

And Fr. Mariano Soe Naing, spokesman of the episcopal conference of that country:

“If we had to take the Holy Father to the people who suffer most among us, we would take him to the refugee camps of the Kachin [a predominantly Catholic ethnic group - editor’s note], where many victims of the civil war have been displaced from their homes. Concerning the use of the term ‘Rohingya,’ my opinion is that, in order to show respect for the people and government of Myanmar, to use the expression accepted by the institutions [‘Muslims of the Rakhine’ - editor’s note] is more recommended. If the pope were to use that term during the visit, we would be concerned for his safety.”

In Myanmar the Catholics number a little more than one percent of the population, 600,000 out of 50 million, and are viewed by most as a foreign body, on a par with other persecuted minorities. So it is understandable that they would be on the defensive.

What comes as a surprise, however, is that the Vatican secretariat of state would not have provided Pope Francis, if he really wanted to speak publicly on the persecution of the Rohingya, with a less improvised text, all the more when he is about to make a journey to that country.

The Holy See established diplomatic relations with Myanmar last March. And in May the pope received a visit at the Vatican from Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize laureate held under house arrest for 15 years by the military regime and finally democratically elected and appointed foreign minister in a government that, however, is still under the control of the army, which continues to hold the true levers of power.

A completely updated dossier should therefore be available to Pope Francis, in view of his journey.

But in point of fact the words he spoke at the Angelus on Sunday, August 28 did not seem to be the most calibrated.

That a pope should set himself up as a defender of Muslims who this time find themselves on the side not of the persecutors but of the persecuted is not only appropriate but sure to have its effect on the global stage.

But in Myanmar the persecuted also include Christians of the Kachin and Chin ethnic groups, in the northern part of the country, and of the Karen and Karenni in the east. There is no counting the number of churches that have been destroyed In recent years, the villages put to fire and sword, the tens of thousands of people forced to flee.

And above all: who is persecuting them, and why?

News is filtering out of forced conversions to Buddhism, even at a young age, in schools intended to turn the students of other faiths into little monks with shaved heads and saffron robes. It is illegal to bring Bibles and religious books into the country. Non-Buddhists are precluded from any career in the state administration.

The overwhelming majority of the population of Myanmar is, in fact, of the Buddhist faith. And Buddhist monks are at the head of the organizations most intolerant toward the minorities of other faiths, with the full support of the military.

The exact opposite, that is, of the legend that universally accompanies Buddhism, which is almost always depicted as nothing but peace, compassion, wisdom, brotherhood.

The reality is much different. Religious freedom is heavily repressed not only in Myanmar but, albeit to a lesser extent, in other mainly Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, which Pope Francis visited in 2015, Laos, Cambodia, Bhutan, Mongolia.

In recent weeks the persecution of the Rohingya on the part of the Buddhist regime of Myanmar has reached a peak, forcing many of them to flee toward Bangladesh, which however is blocking them at the border. And this right now when Pope Francis is preparing to visit both of these countries.

Aung San Suu Kyi, paladin of human rights, is letting be and keeping quiet, heavily influenced as she is by the despotism of the most intolerant military authorities and Buddhists.

Pope Francis does not have these constraints. And not only the Rohingya, but all the persecuted minorities of Myanmar are expecting him to speak and act as a free man, to come to their defense, of course, but also to openly denounce those who are oppressing them and why they are doing so.


Sandro Magister



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