By Philippa Hitchen
The Catholic bishops of Myanmar have asked the Holy See to organize an international conference on the plight of the stateless Rohingya people.
The bishops have been in Rome this week, meeting with Pope Francis and top Vatican officials, discussing the ethnic conflicts that continue to plague their country.
The Pope made a three-day visit to Myanmar in November last year, urging Catholics, Buddhists and all member of society to work for peace and reconciliation in the Southeast Asian nation.
A key concern during the papal visit to Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh was the fate of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, who have fled from the conflict between government troops and independence fighters in northern Rakhine state.
Following a private meeting between the Pope and the bishops in the Vatican on Tuesday, the head of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Charles Bo talked to us about the impact of the papal visit to his country.
The Cardinal says that in the wake of the visit, the “whole nation at large begins to understand the message and even to respect the person of the Pope as well as the Catholic Church”.
He says one of the benefits is that the bishops “have easier access to government”, including the regional generals and top military leader.
Cardinal Bo says he personally requested that Pope Francis send a message to Aung San Suu Kyi and to General Min Aung Hlaing appealing for peace in the country. He notes that the Pope “said he definitely would do that”.
Speaking of the plight of the Rohingya refugees, the cardinal says he “requested whether the Vatican Secretary of State could organise an “international meeting because none of these countries would accept these people and give citizenship” to them. He says it is unclear whether Bangladesh, which receives international assistance for the refugees, will continue to support them when the aid dries up.
Cardinal Bo says the Holy Father agreed to “talk with the Secretary of State”, adding that he hoped a conference could be organised within the end of this year.
He notes that he will be travelling to the northern Rakhine state with a group from the organisation Religions for Peace. He says members of group, plus European ambassadors will meet with Aung San Sui Kyi on May 25th and then fly to Rakhine state “to see the situation for ourselves”. He says the group plan to make independent statement reporting on what they observe.