Pope Francis: Trekking his way to the fringes of the Catholic Church

Religion increasingly informs politics in both countries with fundamentalism and intolerance a clear and present danger
Pope Francis: Trekking his way to the fringes of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for a weekly general audience at St Peter's square on November 22, 2017 in Vatican. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP) 

Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar Nov. 27-30 and to Bangladesh Nov. 30-Dec. 2 highlights challenges the very small Catholic communities face of surviving and thriving in a climate where their very identity can become a target for majority sometimes militant populations: radical nationalist Buddhists in Myanmar and extremist Muslims in Bangladesh.

 

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Pope Francis has declared his visit to both countries to be pastoral in focus. And for Pope Francis that doesn’t simply mean meeting Catholics to encourage them in their mission. He will do that for the small but spirited Catholic communities and display his trademark care for the outcast. The problem with such a care in Myanmar is that the "outcast" are many.

As noted above, the world’s media have focused powerfully on the conditions, struggles and desperate needs of the Rohingya Muslim minority. Yet the Rohingya are only one object of discrimination and abusive treatment in Myanmar. The unrelenting focus on them has distracted from the wider picture of conflict and division that has plagued Myanmar for many decades and deprived hundreds of thousands of people from ethnic minority groups of their basic rights. 

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Another disturbing development in the national context is the challenge facing the pope’s pastoral visit: the growing militant extremism of some monks whom many observers believe are backed financially by the country’s military. The trigger to their militancy is the implausible assertion that the country’s Buddhist culture is under threat from Muslims.

There is a broad fear of a Muslim takeover of Myanmar and its promotion serves several interests – the military always anxious to keep control and Buddhist monks anxious to hold on to their cultural authority. This irrational impulse is at the heart of the scapegoating impacting the Rohingya Muslims, so visibly present in the world’s media as they flee the violence of the country’s military.

The Catholic bishops in Myanmar have asked the pope not to just focus on what the world sees happening in their country. In doing this, they are not denying the immense tragedy before the eyes of the world (and their eyes too because they see the BBC and CNN and read the New York Times and The Guardian) to see plainly and almost daily. The Rohingya exodus is the biggest humanitarian crisis in Asia since the Vietnam War ended, and Indochinese from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fled their homes.

But how the Rohingya crisis is seen by discerning eyes within Myanmar has been best summarized by the Archbishop of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Bo:

"Scapegoating — a concept popularized by the French philosopher, Rene Girard — is a process by which violent and frustrated societies with a deep sense of collective victimization channel their anger onto individuals or groups to smother their frustration.

The scapegoat is ‘sacrificed’ either through massacre or expulsion to the ‘desert.’ Bosnia and Serbia, after long years of totalitarianism, went into a spiral of fratricidal genocide till the international community intervened.  The large-scale exodus of Rohingya may be seen as the ‘scapegoat’ sent to the desert (for the frustrations and anger felt by many in Myanmar)."

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced inside and outside Myanmar for decades — many of them Christians and Catholics. What the bishops are asking is that the full picture is seen and that the Western media’s use of distressing visuals does not keep the others whom the Church in many places is helping from public view.

"If we say that the pope’s visit is to focus mainly on the Rohingya issue, it is out of context," Cardinal Bo said, explaining that the country’s modern history has been tragic.

Cardinal Bo made it clear that Pope Francis understood the realities of Myanmar’s political situation and that it was not his job to interfere. "The problem will not be solved just by the Holy Father commenting on the Rohingya. Criticizing the military and the government may be counterproductive," he added.

"We cannot allow the pope to make comments and then leave the church in opposition to the military, the government and the Buddhist community," he said.

But Cardinal Bo was sure that the pope would address the Rakhine crisis and the ongoing civil war in Kachin in ways that will not alienate Myanmar’s authorities, the military and the Buddhist majority and create more problems in a divided country.

"The Rohingya are certainly a huge problem. Yet one must address it in the wider situation of the issues for all people," he said. "To reduce his visit only to just addressing one problem will put the aims and objectives of this visit out of focus and will be very counter-productive," he said.

 

Treading carefully on mission for peace

True his mission as pope, Francis is once again trekking his way to the edges of the human challenge and the fringes of the Catholic Church. The churches in Bangladesh and Myanmar have come from the periphery to the center of the Church when Pope Francis made Archbishops Patrick D’Rozario (Dhaka) and Charles Bo (Yangon) cardinals.

Both countries are still relatively young with Myanmar in its current phase barely 18 months old, and both are very much works in progress. Bangladesh is the fastest growing economy in South Asia — off a very low base — and has continued to struggle with its own identity in the recent past under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s effective one-party rule. Elections, which must be held before the end of 2018, will be telling.

Myanmar’s present and immediate future is even less certain as it heads, unsteadily and right now falteringly, out of the morass created by five decades of military rule and international isolation.

Religion increasingly informs politics in both countries with fundamentalism and intolerance a clear and present danger. Within this context, the Church in each place is also a "work in progress" as relatively very small Catholic communities face the challenges of surviving and thriving in a climate where their very identity can become a target for majority, sometimes militant populations: radical nationalist Buddhists in Myanmar and extremist Muslims in Bangladesh.

Yet their outsized influence in both places through their significance in national affairs (Myanmar) and in health, welfare and education services to people with no Catholic affiliation (Bangladesh) is something of an example of how Pope Francis wants the Church to serve all peoples.

At the consistory in 2015 when Cardinal Bo received his red hat, Pope Francis urged the cardinals "to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is marginalized, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith, or say that they are atheists; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper — whether in body or soul — who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized!"

Pope Francis’ mission is to encourage and foster peace in both places. "The pope's motto is love and peace: love means among the ethnic groups, among the religious people and the majority Buddhist and other religions. Peace means to end decades-long civil wars which are still raging in the country's north," Cardinal Bo said in an interview with ucanews.com. 

This visit, due to the Rohingya tragedy, even more that the enormous coverage that papal trips usually receive, will be held under the intense glare of the international media spotlight. In both countries but in Myanmar in particular, it will have its edgy moments because both countries are delicately balanced, with readily apparent conflicts of long gestation (Myanmar) and ones of more recent origin owing to underdevelopment and religious extremism (Bangladesh).

And, as happens with the pope’s travels, a new and enlarged focus on the two countries will ensue. For Pope Francis, this is another set of risks and challenges to embrace.

The end.

For a comprehensive understanding of Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh and to read the entire article "Myanmar and Bangladesh: Two Nations in the Heart of Asia" subscribe to La Civilta Cattolica available in both print and digital formats. UCAN publishes La Civilta Cattolica in English. The monthly is a highly popular and non-specialist review of religion and theology, culture and science, literature and art, politics and society and has a reputation for being the best barometer of thinking inside the Vatican.

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