Political analysts, human rights’ defenders and church officials are wondering how much sway Pope Francis will have over wayward politics and flagging human rights in Bangladesh. The Nov. 30 — Dec. 2 visit follows the pope treading cautiously in neighboring largely Buddhist Myanmar on the sensitive issue of that country’s mistreatment of minority Rohingya Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have in recent months fled to Bangladesh as refugees. Badiul Alam Majumder, secretary of Citizens for Good Governance in Bangladesh, noted that the Pope is not a political leader and should therefore not be expected to come up with political solutions. However, this did not mean Pope Francis could not express direct concern over the abuse of Rohingyas or fears of worsening political violence in Bangladesh.
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Majumder reacted angrily to the pope’s avoidance of using the term ‘Rohingya’ in Myanmar. Rohingya is a self-identifying term rejected my many Buddhists in Myanmar who consider them to be illegal Bengali migrants, despite a presence in the country going back generations. “The pope has lost his global stature as a human rights defender and lover of persecuted people by being too diplomatic,” Majumder said of the pope’s stance while in Myanmar. “By not directly condemning the Rohingya persecution, he seems to have condoned the genocidal crackdown inflicted on them.” A Vatican spokesman has in recent days rejected similar criticism. And Father Albert T. Rozario, convener of the Justice and Peace Commission in Dhaka archdiocese, said attacks on Pope Francis for dodging the word ‘Rohingya’ in Myanmar are unfounded. “The pope spoke about unity in Myanmar through rights and dignity of all religions and ethnic groups that include Rohingya,” Father Rozario said. “He also called for an end to persecution and conflict and for peace and harmony.” The pope’s approach was to stay away from controversy while speaking up for the rights of all people in Myanmar,” Father Rozario added. However, Majumder said he did not think the pope could now make much difference to the lives of Rohingya, even if he meets with some Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. There was still scope, however, for Pope Francis to make meaningful comments on human rights being under threat in Bangladesh. “Politics and elections are one country’s internal affair, yet the pope as a global leader can encourage our political parties to be more tolerant,” he said. Nur Khan, a prominent Dhaka-based human rights lawyer and activist, also claimed Pope Francis failed to stand up strongly enough for the rights of Rohingya in Myanmar. “It seems he has taken a strategic stance to save Myanmar’s minority Christians from a political and nationalist backlash,“ Khan said. “But the world expected more from a global spiritual leader like Pope Francis.” Khan noted that more broadly Pope Francis has been a great advocate of human rights and justice. And for this reason, he believed the pope would raise abuses in Bangladesh during his visit. “I would expect him to know the human rights situation in the country and criticize all kinds of killings, disappearances and all forms of human rights violations,” Khan said. Bangladeshi politics and elections have a long history of bloody rivalry and violence between two major political parties — the ruling center-left Awami League (AL) party and the opposition center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Since 1971 independence from Pakistan, the nation has been through 19 military coups (two successful) and 15-years of military rule that saw the officially secular country tilt towards Islamization. The Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party have alternated in power since the return of parliamentary democracy in the 1990s. When in power, both try to suppress the other, making them perpetual enemies. Violence is a common feature in every local and national election in Bangladesh, including killings and the destruction of property. Bangladesh has faced criticism from human rights watchdogs for a series of past extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances allegedly carried out by law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, Father Rozario noted that the church is upset over the recent disappearance of a Catholic priest who went missing on Nov. 27. “I think the pope already knows about him and might advise the government to take steps to rescue the priest,” Father Rozario said. #popeheartofasia #PopeFrancis