VATICAN CITY – On Monday the Vatican confirmed rumors that have been swirling the past few weeks about a papal visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, announcing that Pope Francis will visit the two Asian countries Nov. 27 to Dec. 2.
“Welcoming the invitation of the respective heads of state and bishops, His Holiness Pope Francis will make an apostolic visit to Myanmar from 27 to 30 November 2017, visiting the cities of Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw,” an Aug. 28 statement from Vatican spokesman Greg Burke read.
The communique also noted that after Myanmar, the pope will head to Bangladesh “from 30 November to 2 December 2017, visiting the city of Dhaka.” The logo for the trip was also published; the schedule is expected to be released shortly.
The pope has been talking about a visit to Asia for several months, but until now nothing had been confirmed.
Though India was initially part of the plan for this year’s Asia trip, a visit to the country had to be cut due to complications with the country’s government. Despite hopes from all sides, it’s taken longer than anticipated to work out some of the details with the government of Prime Minister Narhendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist seen by many as hostile to India’s Christian minority.
Pope Francis’ decision to visit Bangladesh and Myanmar speaks to the great attention he has placed on Asia since his 2013 election.
His second international trip as Pope was a visit to South Korea in August 2014, made in part to celebrate Asian Youth Day; just five months later, in January 2015, he traveled to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
The visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh will be his third tour of the Asian continent.
According to the 2014 census of the Burmese government, Buddhism is the primary religion of Myanmar, at 88 percent. In an overall population of roughly 51 million, Christians make up just 6.2 percent, around 700,000 of whom are Roman Catholics, while Muslims make up 4.3 percent and Hindus are only .5 percent.
The Holy See and Myanmar officially established diplomatic ties in May, agreeing to send ambassadors to each other’s countries when the Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited the Vatican.
The move to officially establish diplomatic ties came just two months after Myanmar’s parliament voted in March to make their country the 183rd nation to enjoy diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Also serving as Myanmar’s Foreign Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese diplomat, politician and author who currently serves as the country’s State Counselor. Before her rise to power, she spent much of her career under house arrest due to her push for human rights and democracy, which contradicted the military rule at the time.
Myanmar has 16 Catholic dioceses and a total of 29 living bishops, both active and retired. In 2015 Pope Francis appointed Myanmar’s first-ever cardinal, giving a red hat to Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon.
At the November 19, 2016, consistory, the pope made a similar gesture toward Bangladesh, naming Archbishop Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka the first-ever cardinal for the Muslim-majority country.
Listed among the top 10 most populated countries in the world, with roughly 163 million citizens, Bangladesh has a minority Catholic population of around 0.3 percent, while the majority of the population, about 90 percent, is Muslim.
In addition to Francis’ affinity for the global margins, another element of the trip close to his heart is the plight of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya people, which he has spoken of often.
The Rohingya are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group largely from the Rakhine state of Burma, in west Myanmar. Since clashes began in 2012 between the state’s Buddhist community and the long-oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority, some 125,000 Rohingya have been displaced, while more than 100,000 have fled Myanmar by sea.
In order to escape forced segregation from the rest of the population inside rural ghettos, many of the Rohingya — who are not recognized by the government as a legitimate ethnic group or as citizens of Myanmar — have made perilous journeys by sea in hope of evading persecution.
In 2015, a number of Rohingya people — estimated in the thousands — were stranded at sea for several months with dwindling supplies while Southeastern nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia refused to take them in.
Since last year, around 87,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh amid a military crackdown on insurgents in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, with horrifying stories of rapes, killings and arson by security forces. Almost 100 new deaths have been reported in recent days amid fresh clashes between the Rohingya and Myanmar’s army.
In Bangladesh, the Rohingya have had little relief, since they are not recognized as refugees in the country. Since last October, many who had fled to Bangladesh have been detained and forced to return to the neighboring Rakhine state.
Pope Francis and the Rohingya
Pope Francis has spoken out on behalf of the Rohingya on several occasions, first drawing attention to their plight during an audience in 2015 with more than 1,500 members of the International Eucharistic Youth Movement.
“Let’s think of those brothers of ours of the Rohingya,” he told attendees. “They were chased from one country and from another and from another. When they arrived at a port or a beach, they gave them a bit of water or a bit to eat and were there chased out to the sea.”
This, he said, “is called killing. It’s true. If I have a conflict with you and I kill you, it’s war.”
He brought the topic up again a month later in an interview with a Portuguese radio station, and he has consistently spoken out on behalf of the Rohingya in Angelus addresses, daily Masses and general audiences.
In his Feb. 8 general audience, Pope Francis asked pilgrims to pray with him “for our brother and sister Rohingya. They were driven out of Myanmar, they go from one place to another and no one wants them.”
“They are good people, peaceful people; they aren’t Christians, but they are good. They are our brothers and sisters. And they have suffered for years,” he said, noting that often members of the ethnic minority have been “tortured and killed” simply for carrying forward their traditions and Muslim faith.
He then led pilgrims in praying an Our Father for the Rohingya, asking afterward for St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave and the patroness of the annual international day of prayer and reflection against human trafficking, to intercede.
The pope used his Aug. 27 Angelus address to draw attention to a recent uptick in violence that has caused nearly 100 new Rohingya deaths.
His visit, then, will likely be used as an occasion to push for a peaceful resolution to the conflict that puts respect for human dignity above ethnic disputes.
Pope Paul VI visited Bangladesh in 1970, followed by St. John Paul II in 1986. Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar will mark the first time a pontiff has ever made an official visit to the country.
Other confirmed international trips for Pope Francis are his upcoming visit to Colombia Sept. 9-13, and his visit to Chile and Peru at the beginning of next year, Jan. 15-21, 2018.
Hannah Brockhaus contributed to this report.