Pope Francis is currently on an apostolic visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. After visiting Myanmar, Nov. 27-30, he will visit Bangladesh, Nov. 30 - Dec 2. While Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, Bangladesh is mostly Muslim. Besides sharing a common border of some 271 kilometers, the two neighbours have a thorny issue between them – the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic group, that mostly lives in Western Myanmar’s Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh. They claim to be native to the area, but the government says they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Denied citizenship under a nationality law passed by the government’s military regime in 1982, they are virtually stateless.
On August 25, Rohingya insurgents attacked a police outpost, killing a dozen members of the security forces. Myanmar’s military responded with a ruthless counter-insurgency campaign against the Rohingya, that has spawned a massive exodus of refugees fleeing violence, atrocity and rights abuse of every type in their homes, villages and towns.
A million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
Over 600,000 alone have escaped to Bangladesh, to join more than 300,000 who fled in earlier waves of ethnic violence over the past three decades. With thousands still crossing the border each day, the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is estimated to be over a 1 million. Bangladesh, a poor country itself, is struggling with the problem trying to accommodate the Rohingya. Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding on Nov. 23 on the return of Rohingya people, but it is too early to say how that will work out on the ground.
We contacted Bangladeshi Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, Archbishop of Dhaka, to know about how the Catholic Church in the country is viewing the Rohingya issue, especially when Pope Francis is visiting both the countries.
Violation of human rights
Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario said that the Rohingya issue wasn’t there initially when talks for a papal visit were going on, but now it is there. He said he understands Myanmar’s situation and also sees the violation of human rights of the Rohingya under the military government. Describing the treatment of the Rohingya as ‘not human’, the cardinal, who the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh said, “people need the right to live in their own land, have their own place to live, education etc…” “They need to go back in security with their rights guaranteed,” said the cardinal who along with other Bangladeshi bishops recently visited the refugee camps.
Bangladesh opened “not only their borders but also the hearts” and this, the cardinal said is the “richness of Bangladesh to be hospitable to those who are in need.” However, he noted that refugees cannot live too long in Bangladesh because it could adversely affect the ecology, the environment and harmony among people, and the nation does not have the resources and means to sustain them.
Card. D’Rozario also spoke about the approach of the international community to the Rohingya issue. In the beginning the international community came with help but the Cardinal wondered how long. He said it is a big risk for Bangladesh. Matters have to be settled with the international community, the cardinal stressed, adding it is a regional problem and not just a problem with between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Caritas and Rohingya refugees
Card. Patrick D’Rozario said that nearly a third of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are being cared for by Caritas Bangladesh, the social arm of the Catholic Church of the country. This has been appreciated by the government, the international community, such as the United Nations and others. Therefore it is not just Chittagong Diocese, which borders Myanmar, but the entire Church of Bangladesh is involved.
Card. D’Rozario said that a budget of nearly $3.5 million is under implementation for Rohingya refugees and another project of $2 million will be implemented in the next few months. So the Bangladesh Church is really actively present with the Rohingya refugees with love, compassion and mercy.