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Pope throws support behind Muslim Rohingya

The Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis will visit Myanmar, Bangladesh Nov. 27-Dec. 2 where Rohingya are persecuted

Pope throws support behind Muslim Rohingya

Displaced Rohingya people from Myanmar's northern Rakhine State are seen gathered at the border town of Ukhiya after Bangladeshi border guards stopped them from entering Bangladesh, on Aug. 26. (AFP photo) 

John Zaw, Mandalay and Michael Sainsbury, Bangkok International

August 28, 2017

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Pope Francis has stepped up his support of Myanmar's ethnic Muslim Rohingya people amid further violence in their home province in the nation's west, as he officially announced his visit to the strife-torn fledgling democracy and neighboring Bangladesh in November and December.

The latest attacks on dozens of police and border posts in northern Rakhine by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgent group marks a dramatic escalation of conflict that has simmered since October 2016 after similar attacks led to a military crackdown and forced thousands of Rohingya to flee or attempt to enter Bangladesh.

The death toll from the attacks rose to 98, mostly Rohingya militants, according to government statements, as Myanmar's security forces continue their so-called clearance operations.

On Aug. 28, the Vatican made official news that Pope Francis will travel to the two impoverished nations where Catholics only make up a small percentage among the majority Buddhists in Myanmar and Muslims in Bangladesh. This is in keeping with Pope Francis' intention to focus on the churches in the peripheries.

Pope Francis gave Myanmar and Bangladesh its first cardinals with Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon and Cardinal Patrick D'Rozario of Dhaka.

"Welcoming the invitation of the respective heads of state and bishops, His Holiness Pope Francis will make an Apostolic Visit to Myanmar from Nov. 27-30, visiting the cities of Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, and to Bangladesh from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, visiting the city of Dhaka. The program for the visit will be published shortly," the Vatican said.

On Aug. 27,  a day ahead of the announcement, Pope Francis, following the Angelus prayer, said "sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters."

"Let all of us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of goodwill to help them, who shall give them their full rights," he said.

The pope, like Cardinal Bo has consistently spoken up for the Rohingya, widely acknowledged as one of the world's most persecuted peoples.

Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government is facing rising militancy in restive Rakhine State that shares a border with Bangladesh and where 1.1 million Rohingya Muslim have long endured discrimination and oppression.

In Bangladesh, the government is struggling with up to 500,000 Rohingya refugees who are mainly stateless due to decades of persecution and live in crowded refugee camps in Chittagong near the border.

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has issued a strong condemnation of the brutal attacks by terrorists on security forces and said her administration remains committed to "finding meaningful and lasting solutions for conflict-torn Rakhine."

The treatment of about 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya in an ethnically divided Rakhine is the biggest challenge for the Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi as tensions rise and clashes between Rohingya militants and security forces continued over the weekend.

Following the Aug. 25 attacks, thousands of Rohingya civilians fled into neighboring Bangladesh while hundreds of ethnic Rakhine have taken refuge at monasteries and towns that are away from clashes.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has blamed the Myanmar government's slow move on solving the deep, years-long policy failures that have recently lead some Muslims in Rakhine to take up violence.

Extreme discrimination, erosion of rights, barriers to citizenship documents, disenfranchisement before the 2015 elections, marginalization from social and political life and rights abuses are behind factors for violence in Rakhine, according to the ICG report.

"An aggressive military response that is not part of a broader political strategy and policy framework will only worsen the situation," ICG warned in a statement released Aug. 27.

On Aug. 25 the Myanmar government declared ARSA, previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, a terrorist organization, in the wake of the attacks in Rakhine.

ARSA, which has been reported as instigating last October's attacks, have claimed responsibility for the offensive, presenting it as a defense against the Myanmar army.

A Rohingya resident form Maungdaw town in northern Rakhine who requested anonymity said that the military's clearance operations have led to less movement by the ARSA but tension was still high and security remains tight.

"The latest attacks have led to a deterioration in an already tense region and it impacts on the security and safety of both communities of Rohingya and Rakhine civilians," a Rohingya resident, a father of three, told ucanews.com. 

The renewed violence came following the release of the final report of the government's Advisory Commission on Rakhine, a nine-member commission in 2016 led by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan.

"While Myanmar has every right to defend its own territory, a highly militarized response is unlikely to bring peace to the area," the commission's report said.

If human rights are not respected and the population remain politically and economically marginalized — northern Rakhine State may provide fertile ground for radicalization, as local communities may become increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by extremists, the commission said.

Aye Lwin, a Muslim from Yangon and a member of the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine commission, said the rule of law is crucial to tackling the violence including protection of civilians.

"What I can say now is that the government needs to implement recommendations by the Rakhine commission despite challenges that have already unfolded in Rakhine," Aye Lwin told ucanews.com.

A Rohingya resident in Sittwe Township, Rakhine State, said deep-rooted discrimination and oppression against the Rohingya community has prompted one of the country's largest ethnic minorities to follow others in taking the option of violence against Myanmar's repressive rule.

"I see the government's slow response to solving the Rakhine crisis issue has prompted militancy in Rakhine State and became a worse and complex situation," the Rohingya told ucanews.com.

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