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On Pope's Visit To Myanmar, Backlash Feared At Mention Of Rohingya


We're going to return to one of the crises that has drawn the attention of the international community - Myanmar's violent crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. Some 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since late August, according to the United Nations. It's been called ethnic cleansing by the U.S. Secretary of State. Now, Pope Francis, one of the world's most influential leaders as head of the Catholic Church, is getting involved. He's beginning a weeklong trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh on Monday. It may be the pontiff's most politically sensitive foreign trip since his election in 2013. To hear more, we're joined now by NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. She'll be traveling with the pope, and she's with us now from Rome. Sylvia, thanks so much for being with us.


MARTIN: Why did the pope decide to make this trip?

POGGIOLI: Francis was originally planning to visit India this year, but then preparations fell through. The Myanmar trip was added after diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Yangon were established last May. But that was before the military crackdown began in August, which led to this great hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. Some church analysts say the trip was decided too hastily, and one of the strongest warnings came this week from the prominent American commentator, Father Thomas Reese. He said someone should have talked the pope out of making this trip. If Francis remains the uncompromising champion of the oppressed, Reese said, he puts Christians at risk. If he is silent about the Rohingya, he loses moral credibility.

MARTIN: So you know, to that end, what is he likely to say? Do we have any sense of what his message is likely to be?

POGGIOLI: Well, this is going to be the most challenging issue of the entire trip. He has spoken out repeatedly in favor of the Rohingya, but local Catholics - and they're a very small minority in majority-Buddhist Myanmar - are worried about a backlash. Myanmar's cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, advised the pope not even to pronounce the name Rohingya because it's inflammatory for the Buddhist majority, which sees the stateless Muslim minority as illegal migrants. In a sign of how fearful Catholics are, reprisals Cardinal Bo does not even describe the crackdown as ethnic cleansing. He says it's unhelpful to put a label on it.

And in his video message to Myanmar last week, the pope said he wants the trip to lead to reconciliation, forgiveness and peace. But he did not mention the Rohingya by name. Now this week, there was a briefing by the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke. He was asked whether the pope will use the word Rohingya, and he said we'll find out together during the trip. It's not a forbidden word.

MARTIN: Is he expected to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi? I mean, she is a person that many people in the West will know. She is a former, you know, long-detained dissident, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She became de facto prime minister in 2015. But many people have criticized her for failing to speak out, which they find particularly striking because they felt that she had, you know, moral authority - at least, you know, up to this point. So is the pope likely to speak to her? And if so, what is he going to say to her?

POGGIOLI: Well, that's probably going to be the most important meeting of the entire trip. That will be on Tuesday. Now, Catholic officials - both here in Rome and in Myanmar - they see the visit as an effort to show the pope's support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic transition. Church officials say she is limited constitutionally in what she can say or do against the military. Cardinal Bo says of - international criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi has been unfair. Church officials in Myanmar - they also believe that the entire military crackdown against the Rohingya is a ploy to get rid of Aung San Suu Kyi altogether and restore the full military dictatorship. Now, we also learned this week that at Cardinal Bo's suggestion, two late additions were added to the pope's schedule. Francis will meet privately with the top military chief - the senior general, Min Aung Hlaing - and once he's in Bangladesh, he'll meet with a group of Rohingya refugees. Clearly, that meeting would not have been possible in Myanmar.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joining us from Rome. Sylvia, thank you so much for speaking with us.

POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.