Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on Nov. 15, at the Vatican. (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP)
In a previously unplanned move, a small group of Rohingya refugees will attend an interfaith meeting in Dhaka on Dec. 1 with Pope Francis.
The gathering, scheduled to be held at the premises of Archbishop's House, is expected to have 4,600 participants including civic authorities, civil society members and different religious leaders.
The decision by the Vatican came after the pope received private briefings from former UN chief Kofi Annan, head of the Myanmar government's commission into investigating the Rohingya crisis and Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon.
"From our side, I can say we are not aware about this development. But the issue of including Rohingya refugees as participants was discussed in a preparatory meeting with Vatican officials," Benedict Alo D'Rozario, secretary of the Central Executive Committee for the Papal Visit told ucanews.com.
A Vatican team visited all the venues of the papal events in Dhaka on Nov. 22 but offered no indication about the additional inclusion of Rohingya in the interfaith gathering, he said.
However, Bishop Gervas Rozario, president of Caritas Bangladesh said, "the local church wanted to include Rohingya in a papal program and the Vatican was positive about it."
"We are on the same page with the Bangladesh government that the Rohingya crisis should have a peaceful solution and the refugees must be allowed back to Myanmar with assurance of security and lawful rights," he said.
"The pope cannot go to Rakhine or to Cox's Bazar to meet Rohingya, so it's the right decision to have them in Dhaka to have them at an audience with the pope," Bishop Rozario said.
Commenting on the latest development, Rana Dasgupta, a Hindu lawyer and secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, said the issue of the Rohingya is akin to the suffering of Bangladeshi people during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan,when 10 million people fled to India as refugees, most of them Hindu and other minorities.
"We are sympathetic to the Rohingya as we have experienced a destruction of lives in a genocidal crackdown and know what it is like to be refugees," Dasgupta, who is to attend the interfaith gathering on Dec. 1, told ucanews.com.
Pope Francis' decision to meet Rohingya will focus attention of the world on this community again and help bring a solution to their persecution, he said.
"The only solution to the Rohingya crisis is to allow them to get back to their home and guarantee their peaceful living with equal rights and dignity like any Myanmar citizen," he said.
"By meeting Rohingya representatives, Pope Francis is sending a strong message to world leaders to press hard on ending the Rohingya crisis, and it is also a signature gesture sending a message of peace and solace to minorities around the globe who facing persecution," Dasgupta said.
Hosein Jahur, 46, a registered Rohingya refugee who has been living in Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar since 1993 described the pope's visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh as a remarkable moment.
"We are glad to know he will meet and talk to the Rohingya. All we want is to go back to our homeland from where we fled to escape persecution. I hope Pope Francis will talk to Myanmar and Bangladeshi leaders and pave the way for our safe and peaceful return to our homeland," Jahur told ucanews.com.
Similarly, Nur Hashem, 48, a schoolteacher from Maungdaw town of Rakhine State in Myanmar who fled to Bangladesh in late August to escape the military crackdown and now lives at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar described the pope as a messenger of peace.
"We expect the pope will speak to Myanmar leaders to soften their hearts regarding the Rohingya, so we can go back home and live in peace," Hashem told ucanews.com.
"I suspect the Myanmar government and military will try to misinform Pope Francis on the Rohingya situation, but he is a wise and prudent man and will be able to differentiate truth from lies," Hashem said.
"His visit raises a hope in us that he will be able to help end our suffering and pave the way for our returning home," he said.
Muhammad Samsudohja, an official from the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, told ucanews.com that the move was a positive step by the pope that will ease the process of Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar through an acceptable and proper system.