Pope Francis faces a diplomatic test as he began his visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, countries that attracted global attention following the Rohingya refugee crisis stemming from atrocities committed by Myanmar's army since late August.
The UN has accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas, while US, France and a number of rights groups termed the incident “crimes against humanity” and even “genocide” owing to Myanmar's excessive use of force, which compelled over 620,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.
Western powers, including the US and EU, have sharply criticised Myanmar, while China has sought a bilateral solution between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Pope Francis' visit comes at a time when the international community is eagerly waiting to see a solution to the Rohingya crisis, which has been in place for several decades.
Rohingyas are denied citizenship, land rights and discriminated in terms of social and economic services in Rakhine, home to some 1.1 million Rohingyas.
The spiritual leader of the world's 1.29 billion Catholics, Pope Francis, who is known for his vocal stance favouring the poor, oppressed and marginalised communities, too spoke of the Rohingya persecution. He termed the Rohingyas "brothers and sisters".
The pontiff, who arrived in Myanmar yesterday, will raise the Rohingya issue as he meets Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, having already met the army head Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
AFP reported that Hlaing said he told Pope Francis his country had "no religious discrimination" after the pair met late yesterday.
"Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all," he said in a Facebook post by his office. "Likewise our military too... (it) performs for the peace and stability of the country."
Myanmar's Cardinal Charles Bo, as well as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, advised the Pope not to use the term Rohingya, due to the word's politically-charged nature.
A professor of Dhaka University's international relations department, Rashed Uz Zaman, said the Pope has already made his stance on the Rohingya issue quite clear. However, he also has to remember the consequences of the words, especially as there is a small Christian community in Myanmar.
"Any word not carefully said may have repercussion," he told The Daily Star over the phone.
"I think the Pope would say as much as is necessary in public. But, surely he would raise his concerns over the Rohingya persecution as he meets the Myanmar authorities," said Rashed.
Thomas Reese, an American Jesuit commentator said, “I have great admiration for the Pope and his abilities, but someone should have talked him out of making this trip.”
News agency AP reports Reese argued that Francis' legacy as an uncompromising champion of the oppressed may lead to a blowback for Burma's minority Christians if he goes too far in defending the Rohingyas against the military's “clearance operations” in Rakhine State.
“If he is prophetic, he puts Christians at risk,” Reese said. “If he is silent about the persecution of the Rohingya, he loses moral credibility.”
Cardinal Patrick D' Rozario said he could not say if Pope would use the term in Myanmar, home to some seven lakh Catholics.
"The most important thing for him is the ones who are oppressed... the Pope will meet the army general as well as Suu Kyi. His thoughts are beyond what we generally think.
"The Pope would try to touch the hearts of men," Cardinal Patrick told The Daily Star yesterday.
Asked if the Pope faces diplomatic challenges in Myanmar as he would speak of the Rohingya, he said, "There are always risks in good work. But, that does not mean that we won't talk of values."
However, Cardinal Patrick said the Pope never undermines or judges people when he speaks.
"He [Pope] holds dialogues with the persons involved. This is a big job. And, there is no risk," the cardinal, also archbishop of Dhaka, said at a press conference at Ramna Cathedral, organised to brief the media of the church's preparations for the papal's visit.
Asked if the Pope would propose any peace deal on the Rohingya issue, he said the pontiff would discuss the issues of peace and justice of the oppressed. One may accept it or not.
"The Pope cannot solve all the problems... he is not a problem solver of the world. But, he can inspire people on how to look at a problem and what should be done for that," he said.
The Pope may discuss issues on citizenship, land rights, shelter and human development aspects of the Rohingyas and appreciate Bangladesh's stance in regards to the Rohingyas, he added.
Pope Francis is likely to meet a small group of Rohingyas in Dhaka during his three-day visit, he said.
"We are trying, with the approval of the government, to invite a small group of Rohingyas to Dhaka. We hope we can do it," the cardinal said.
Vatican-Bangladesh Relations Fantastic
Asked about the significance of the Pope's visit to Bangladesh during November 30-Dec 2, Cardinal Patrick said it is a recognition of Bangladesh's tradition of harmonious living and the development made over the years.
Vatican does not have economic or trade relations with Bangladesh, but there is an exceptional relationship based on humanity, morality and spirituality, he said.
Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi said the Catholic Church in Bangladesh has been making significant contributions to education, health and socio-economic development and to promoting the rights of the marginalised people.
"This relationship will continue," he said.
Bishops from around the country said approximately 80,000 Catholics will attend a prayer service at Suhrawardy Udyan and pray for peace and harmony with Pope Francis on December 1.
Chittagong Archbishop Moses M Costa, Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur, Bishop Shorot Francis Gomes of Dhaka, Bishop Subrata Hawlader of Barisal, Bishop Romen Bairagi of Khulna and Father Kamal Corraya, convener of the media committee for the papal visit, also spoke during the briefing.