International News

In Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pope Travels to Peripheries

By Father Francis Sunil Rosario

People hold photos of Myanmar state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi during an Oct. 10 candlelight interfaith prayer service in Yangon. Pope Francis will visit Myanmar Nov. 27-30. (CNS photo/Soe Zeya Tun, Reuters)

Pope Francis’ call to ‘go into the peripheries’ is real. In his brief pontificate, he has shown his concern for the poor by calling the Church ‘of the poor and for the poor.’ He has drawn the attention of the world leaders and all concerned by declaring Nov. 19 as a day of the world poor.

His visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh from Nov. 27-Dec. 2, his 21st apostolic journey, is a proof of his commitment to the poor and the deprived of the society. These two countries, with Catholic populations that are relatively tiny but resilient, are among the most challenged in terms of poverty, political instability, religious and ethnic conflict and persecution.

They are among the top five poorest countries in Asia. They both are new democracies, among the most challenged in terms of the complex web of political instability, religious and ethnic conflict and persecution, population size and growth and environmental devastation.

The forced exodus of millions of people around he world tells a “story in space,” a nation of refugees, stateless and displaced persons numbering over 65 million people in 2016. This has given rise to a fluid geography that questions not only sociologists, politicians, journalists and of course, geographers, but also artists from all over the world. Over the last two months, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine State in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh. Rohingya refers to the minority Muslim people in Myanmar.

Myanmar has 659,000 Catholics, but when the pope visits there, he also will meet with leaders of the majority Buddhist religion and other faith groups. “I think that his visit will help heal many wounds,” said Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar.

Excitement for the pope’s visit also is growing in Bangladesh, which has a Catholic population of 375,000 – a small percentage of the population in the world’s fourth-largest Muslim nation.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, Archbishop of Dhaka, said the Holy Father’s visit will be a “celebration of harmony.”  He said the visit will provide Pope Francis with an opportunity to listen to the voice of the country’s poor and take it to the ‎whole world, especially regarding issues such as climate change, human rights, and Rohingya refugees.

For the Holy Father, both Myanmar and Bangladesh are the “field hospitals” where people at large are suffering due to various reasons. He would like to be a balm to the suffering humanity and bring the healing touch of God by building solidarity and humanitarian concerns for one another. He has tremendous skills for dialogue with the world religions and cultures. Dialogue with world religions, the culture and the poor will be significant for the Holy Father in this important visit to the two poorest countries of the world.

“My visit is intended to confirm the Catholic community of Myanmar in its faith in God and witness of the Gospel, which teaches the dignity of every man and woman, and demands that we open our hearts to others, especially the poorest and most in need,” Pope Francis confirmed in his recent message.

He has been advised by local Catholic and political leaders not to utter the word “Rohingyas” in his talks lest it be offensive to a country dominated by the Buddhist majority. His oft-quoted phrase “smell of the sheep” will be put into practice by his visit. A shepherd should be close to the sheep, especially those who suffer for various reasons. His visit is one of solidarity with the poor and connection to various religions and cultures. In Myanmar, the majority is Buddhist and in Bangladesh, Muslim.

Both Myanmar and Bangladesh have huge environmental challenges that threaten the well-being of tens of millions of people. Bangladesh is located on the floodplains of the world’s largest river delta system that empties into the Bay of Bengal.  The bulk of Myanmar’s population also lives on the Irrawaddy River Delta.

The Bay of Bengal has seen 25 of the world’s 26 worst cyclones. Cyclone Marian in 1991 killed 139,00 people in Bangladesh and in 2008 Cyclone Nargis killed at least 138,000 people in Myanmar and affected 2.4 million.

These two countries are vulnerable to frequent natural disasters from tidal shifts, cyclones, and flooding, killing hundreds of people each year. Agriculture and fishing, forestry, mining, and energy are all critical sectors for Myanmar’s development and economic growth.  The largely unregulated exploitation of these has led to a rapid depletion of the country’s natural resources and a worsening of the environmental problems.

The economic futures of Bangladesh and Myanmar are clouded by serial environmental issues. This is a topic that has been at the forefront of Pope Francis’ agenda since the release of the landmark encyclical “Laudato Si’,” subtitled “On Care For Our Common Home” in June 2015.

In his letter to participants of the COP-23 U.N. Convention on Climate Change, Pope Francis called on world leaders to set aside denial, indifference, resignation, and trust in inadequate solutions and instead engage in dialogue on building the future of the planet.

“I would like to reaffirm my urgent call to renew dialogue on how we are building the future of the planet,” Pope Francis said in his letter to convention participants that took place in Bonn on Nov. 6-17.

“We need an exchange that unites us all, because the environmental challenge we are experiencing, and its human roots, regards us all, and affects us all.”

The agreement, the Pope said, indicates a clear path of transition to a low- or zero-carbon model of economic development and combating climate change and poverty, bearing in mind the needs of the most vulnerable populations.

Deprived of its health and education services that were nationalized by these governments in the 1960s, the Church in the area remains full of energy for renewed religious life, and ready to serve society in typically Catholic ways now that government restraints are being slowly lifted with the cry for democracy.

The appointment of Charles Bo by Pope Francis as the first cardinal in Myanmar and of Patrick D’Rozario in Bangladesh are the signs of his reform within the Church structures to include those who serve the poor and the deprived of the society, on the peripheries of the society.

The Church has disproportionate influence in Bangladesh and Myanmar th in national affairs and in health, welfare and education services to people. Even though most citizens there are not Catholic, Pope Francis wants the Church to serve all the people.

Although the Holy Father in his message has voiced his concern for his own sheep, i.e. the minority Catholic communities, he will have several state level meetings with the political leaders either behind closed doors or in public to address the needs of protecting the rights of the poor and the marginalized.

Whether he uses the term “Rohingyas” or not, his concern for the poor will ever remain his pet agenda. The Christian mandate is to reach out to the poor, which the Holy Father has demonstrated in his pastoral visits throughout the world.

Father Francis Sunil Rosario is a priest of the Diocese of Calcutta. He currently is living and serving at St. Bartholomew Church, Elmhurst.