POPE Francis wraps up a high-stakes Asia tour today after meeting Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in a highly symbolic gesture of solidarity with the Muslim minority fleeing violence in Myanmar.
The Catholic leader will address college students and visit a hospital in Dhaka run by the order of Mother Theresa on the final day of a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar that has been dominated by the plight of the Rohingya.
Pope Francis is known for championing the rights of refugees and has repeatedly expressed his support for the Rohingya, a persecuted people whom he has described as his “brothers and sisters”.
The usually forthright pontiff walked a diplomatic tightrope during his four days in Myanmar – the first ever papal visit to the country – avoiding any direct reference to the Rohingya in public while appealing to Buddhist leaders to overcome “prejudice and hatred”.
But in Bangladesh he addressed the issue head-on, meeting a small group of Rohingya refugees in an emotional encounter in Dhaka, including a 12-year-old girl who lost all her family in an attack.
“Your tragedy is very hard, very great, but it has a place in our hearts,” he told them.
“In the name of all those who have persecuted you, who have harmed you, in the face of the world’s indifference, I ask for your forgiveness.”
The pope referred to the refugees as Rohingya, using the word for the first time on the tour after the archbishop of Yangon advised him that doing so in Myanmar could inflame tensions.
The word is politically sensitive in the mainly Buddhist country because many there do not consider the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group, regarding them instead as incomers from Bangladesh.
The pope faced criticism from some rights activists and refugees for failing to address the issue publicly, although Vatican officials hinted he had done so in private meetings with Myanmar’s leaders.
Hours after arriving in Bangladesh he also called for “decisive” international measures to address the “grave crisis”.
Today he will meet patients being treated by nuns in the capital of Bangladesh, where schools and clinics run by the Catholic church provide a lifeline for poor communities.
Around 150 people are being treated at the Mother Theresa House, among them Ananda Hira, a kidney patient who receives the dialysis his father cannot afford to pay for privately.
“I am sure if the pope touches my head and prays for me, I’ll be cured,” he said. “God listens to his prayers.”
The pope returns to Rome this afternoon having held well-attended open-air masses in Bangladesh and Myanmar, which both have small Christian populations.