In his keynote speech at the presidential palace in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka, the pontiff, referring to the refugee crisis, said, “None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps.”
The head of the Roman Catholic Church arrived in Dhaka on Thursday for his three-day visit after wrapping up his trip to Myanmar.
Some 625,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the Rakhine State in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar since security forces responded to Rohingya militants' attacks on Aug 25 by launching a brutal crackdown.
Before the latest exodus of refugees, Bangladesh has been home to over 400,000 Rohingyas over the last few decades.
"This has been done at no little sacrifice. It has also been done before the eyes of the whole world.”
The 80-year-old pontiff, however, did not use the word ‘Rohingya’ in Dhaka, just like he did not in Myanmar.
In his address to the event with Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid hours after his arrival, he instead spoke of “refugees from the Rakhine state”.
Pope Francis’ avoidance of the term drew criticism from international rights groups as well as the media.
On Wednesday, the Vatican defended it saying his mere presence (in Myanmar) drew attention to the refugee crisis.
The pope’s itinerary does not include visiting the refugee camps, but Catholic leaders in Bangladesh have said he is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka.
In his address to government officials, diplomatic corps and members of the civil society, Pope Francis said the “young state” of Bangladesh has “always had a special place in the heart of the popes”.
“I come here in the footsteps of two of my predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, to pray with my Catholic brothers and sisters, and to offer them a message of affection and encouragement.”
“President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman understood and sought to embody this principle in the national Constitution. He envisioned a modern, pluralistic and inclusive society in which every person and community could live in freedom, peace and security, with respect for the innate dignity and equal rights of all. The future of this young democracy and the health of its political life are essentially linked to fidelity to that founding vision.”
Referring to the country’s vast network of large rivers and small waterways, Pope Francis said: “That natural beauty is, I think, symbolic of your particular identity as a people.”
Bangladesh strives to join unity of culture with respect for different traditions and communities, which “like so many streams, draw from, and return to enrich, the great current of the political and social life of the country,” he said.
Describing Bangladesh as a country known for its religious harmony, the pope said: “In a world where religion is often – scandalously – misused to foment division, such a witness to its reconciling and unifying power is all the more necessary.”
“This was seen in a particularly eloquent way in the common reaction of indignation that followed last year’s brutal terrorist attack here in Dhaka, and in the clear message sent by the nation’s religious authorities that the most holy name of God can never be invoked to justify hatred and violence against our fellow human beings.”
Catholics, who make up a tiny minority in Bangladesh, seek to play a constructive role in Bangladesh’s development, Pope Francis said, highlighting the schools, clinics and dispensaries run by the mission.
He said the Church appreciates the freedom to practise its faith and to pursue charitable works, ‘which benefit the entire nation’.
“The Church seeks to promote a culture of encounter that will enable students to take up their responsibilities in the life of society. Indeed, the vast majority of the students and many of the teachers in these schools are not Christians, but from other religious traditions.”
President Hamid, speaking at the programme, praised Pope Francis for his stance on the violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar and added his stand heralded new hope for resolving the refugee crisis.
“Your sympathy and wholehearted call for help and ensuring rights of the Rohingyas have put ethical obligation on the global community to work in this regard immediately and sincerely,” the president said.
He pointed out that Bangladesh has sheltered around 1 million Rohingyas, who have been displaced from their homeland of Rakhine State in Myanmar.
The president also reiterated Bangladesh’s ‘zero tolerance policy’ in tackling terrorism and militancy.
Hamid, however, added that Bangladesh, like other Muslim-majority nations, was concerned over the ‘rise of Islamophobia’ in the Western countries.
“We believe interreligious talks are necessary at all levels of society to prevent such extremist trend,” he said.
After arriving in the Bangabhaban, the pope held a private meeting with President Hamid.
He then addressed the Cabinet members, diplomats and other dignitaries at the Darbar Hall. He also signed the visitors’ book at the Bangabhaban.
Among others, the chiefs of the three forces and secretaries of different ministries attended the programme.
Archbishop Patrick D'Rozario of Dhaka, the first cardinal of Bangladesh, and Vatican’s Apostolic Nuncio in Dhaka Archbishop George Kocherry accompanied Pope Francis.