Pope Francis faced criticism for maintaining silence on the ‘Rohingya’ issue during his recent trip to Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh. Earlier this week, the pontiff defended his silence, saying that he did so because of the Christians living in Myanmar and for the betterment of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and India. He argued that a public denunciation might have “slammed the door in the face” of his hosts and “prevented his message from being heard”. Pope Francis claimed that it was his diplomatic strategy.

In Myanmar, the 266th and current Pope of the Catholic Church didn’t use the word ‘Rohingya’. Instead, he expressed serious concern over the condition of minority Muslims – or Rohingyas, a stateless Indo-Aryan people – in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In Bangladesh, he used the word only once. At an interfaith meeting in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, the pope told a group of 16 refugees: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.” Immediately after he made the comment, a number of Myanmarese nationals criticised the pontiff on social media, saying that the pope “changed his colour” upon his arrival in Dhaka. Earlier, the Bangladeshi people had slammed Pope Francis for not mentioning the word “Rohingya” in Myanmar.

Later, the pope told the local media in Vatican that he was well aware of the Rohingya crisis. However, his aim was to send a strong message to the concerned authorities in Myanmar. The pope said that the Roman Catholic Mission in Myanmar had advised him not to use the word, as any such move might have prompted the Myanmarese government to cancel the meeting between the pontiff and senior government officials. Moreover, the use of the word ‘Rohingya’ might create trouble for the Christian community people in the South-east Asian nation, the Mission told the pope.

“It’s true I didn’t have the pleasure of slamming the door in their face(s) publicly with a denunciation. But, I had the satisfaction of dialogue, and letting the other side dialogue, and in this way the message was delivered,” stressed the pontiff.

Pope Francis once again expressed satisfaction with his meetings with the top political leadership in Myanmar. He said it is unfortunate that Myanmar is not ready to accept Rohingyas as its own citizens. According to the pope, Myanmar will soon realise the mistake it made and stop considering Rohingyas as migrants from Bangladesh. Pope Francis told the press that he wept hearing the plight first-hand of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, adding that the meeting was a condition set for his trip to the two Asian nations.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]