By Robin Gomes
Two prominent Catholic Church officials of Asia joined their counterparts in Bangladesh on a 2-day visit to the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district of southeastern Bangladesh.
Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, and president of Caritas Internationalis, the global confederation of 165 national Catholic relief and development agencies, and Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon and president of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) visited the camps on Monday.
On Sunday, they met Muhammad Abul Kalam, head of Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, the main state body overseeing over one million Rohingya refugees residing in about 30 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
On both days Cardinals Tagle and Bo were accompanied by Bangladeshi Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB) and Archbishop Moses Costa of Chittagong, CBCB secretary-general, under whose jurisdiction come the refugee camps, and Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, CBCP vice-president.
The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic group, that mostly lives in Western Myanmar’s Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh. Buddhist-majority Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though they have lived in the country for generations.
Denied citizenship under a nationality law passed by the government’s military regime in 1982, they are virtually stateless and are denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.
Bangladesh is currently hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas, most of whom fled to Cox’s Bazar following two deadly military crackdowns in the Rakhine State of Myanmar in 2016 and 2017.
Government appreciates Church efforts
Abul Kalam said he was delighted by the visit of two prominent Catholic Church leaders and he presented to them “an overview about the crisis.”
“I conveyed to them the gigantic challenges we are facing and told them we appreciated the various activities undertaken by Caritas for the refugees,” Kalam told UCANEWS. “We have appealed to them to continue the Church’s support. I believe the cardinals now have a good idea of the various challenges the refugees are going through, especially the risks during monsoon season as well as health and environmental problems.”
The visiting cardinals talked to several Rohingya refugee families at Camp 4 and Camp 17 in Kutupalong, the largest of the refugee camps, which shelters more than 400,000 Rohingya.
They also met Caritas staff and volunteers and saw the Caritas programmes, including model shelters and the distribution of cooking gas cylinders to refugees.
The visit by the two cardinals overlapped a visit by a 10-member Myanmar government delegation over the weekend that held repatriation talks with the leaders of the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar.
The Rohingya leaders rejected the delegation’s offer to return to Myanmar unless they are recognised as an ethnic group with citizenship in their home country, and unless their demands for justice, international protection and the ability to go back to their original villages and lands are met.
While Cardinal Tagle visited the Rohingya refugee camps earlier in December, it was the first by Card. Bo.
James Gomes, the regional director of Caritas Chittagong, who coordinated the visit, explained to UCANEWS that the visit was exclusively on “humanitarian grounds” on behalf of Caritas Internationalis and the FABC and was not “diplomatic” in nature.
He said Cardinal Tagle’s last visit was limited to Caritas activities in the camps. This time, he met government officials and viewed the activities of other aid agencies as well.” He said the cardinal now has a broader view of the challenges in the camps.
Cardinal Bo talked to Rohingya families in their “own language” and they were elated and encouraged, he said.
When Pope Francis visited Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017, he met a group of Rohingya refugees on December 1, during an interreligious and ecumenical meeting for peace at the Archbishop’s House in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Source: UCANEWS)