Pope Francis will meet Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar in Dhaka when he visits the Bangladeshi capital next week, a Vatican spokesman said Wednesday.
Francis, who has repeatedly spoken out over the persecution of the religious minority by the Myanmar authorities, will meet a small group of Rohingyas during an interfaith meeting scheduled for Friday, December 1.
The Argentine pontiff’s trip to Bangladesh will be preceded by a three-day stop in neighbouring Myanmar, which will now include a private meeting with the head of the country’s army, General Min Aung Hlaing.
The meeting with the military chief was organised on the recommendation of the archbishop of Yangon, Charles Bo, who also advised the pope not to use the term “Rohingya” during his visit, for fear of inflaming tensions in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Army and government officials decline to use a term they see as giving the Muslims of Rakhine state the status of an ethnic minority, whereas the official line is that they are illegal immigrants from mainly Muslim Bangladesh.
The Vatican spokesman said the pope was not forbidden from employing the term but added that he planned to follow his archbishop’s advice.
“The pope’s visit comes at a key moment for these two countries,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, adding that he expects a very interesting trip.
The pope will also separately meet Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi — a Nobel peace laureate — as previously scheduled during the first part of his November 26-30 trip.
International condemnation of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya has mounted in recent days with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying Wednesday that it amounted to ethnic cleansing.
More than 600,000 Rohingya, around a third of them children, have fled to Bangladesh since the military launched counter-insurgency operations in Rakhine state in August.
UN officials have also described what is happening as ethnic cleansing, while Amnesty International has said the treatment of the Rohingya has been on a par with the institutionalised racism of apartheid South Africa.