DHAKA, Bangladesh — Each human being is created in the image and likeness of God, yet so often people desecrate that image with violence, as seen in the treatment of Myanmar's Rohingya, Pope Francis said.
"Today, the presence of God is also called 'Rohingya,'" the pope said Dec. 1 after meeting, clasping hands with and listening intently to 16 Rohingya who have found shelter in Bangladesh.
"They, too, are images of the living God," Pope Francis told a gathering of Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu leaders gathered in Dhaka for an interreligious meeting for peace.
"Dear brothers and sisters, let us show the world what its selfishness is doing to the image of God," he told the crowd, adding, "Let's continue working so (Myanmar's Rohingya) rights are recognized. Let's not close our hearts. Let's not look away."
The interreligious meeting in Bangladesh came after the pope visited Myanmar and discussed the treatment of religious minorities with leaders — without referring to the Rohingya by name. The pope explained on his return flight to Rome that his chief concern had been to get a point across, and he did.
"If I would have used the word, the door would have closed," he told reporters Dec. 2 on his flight from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Rome.
In speeches in Myanmar, Pope Francis repeatedly referred to the obligation to defend the lives and human rights of all people. But he didn't specifically mention the Rohingya, Muslim's from Rakhine state. The Myanmar military, claiming it is cracking down on militants, has been accused of a massive persecution of the Rohingya to the point that some describe it as "ethnic cleansing."
For the government of Myanmar, the Rohingya don't exist; instead they are considered undocumented immigrants.
"I knew that if, in an official speech, I would have used the word, they would close the door in my face," the pope told reporters who asked why he didn't name the group. However, "I described the situation" publicly, knowing "I could go further in the private meetings" with government officials.
"I was very, very satisfied with the meetings," the pope said. "I dared to say everything I wanted to say."
Pope Francis refused to give reporters details about his private meetings with government officials and military leaders in Myanmar, but described them as "civilized dialogue" and said he was able to make the points important to him.
At the interreligious meeting in Bangladesh, the pope said that the Rohingya, like all people, are created in God's image. "Each of us must respond."
The refugees traveled to Dhaka from Cox's Bazar, the southern Bangladeshi city hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Myanmar. More than 620,000 Rohingya have crossed the border into Bangladesh since August.
Speaking directly to them, Pope Francis said, "We are all close to you."
In comparison to the suffering the Rohingya have endured, he said, the response of the people at the gathering actually is small. "But we make room for you in our hearts," he said. "In the name of all those who have persecuted you and have done you harm, especially for the indifference of the world, I ask forgiveness."
Pope Francis' remarks, which he made in Italian, were translated for the crowd and for the Rohingya. Many were in tears.
In his formal speech at the interreligious meeting, Pope Francis said "mere tolerance" for people of other religions or ethnic groups wasn't enough to create a society where everyone's rights are respected and peace reigns.
Believers must "reach out to others in mutual trust and understanding," not ignoring differences, but seeing them as "a potential source of enrichment and growth," he said, adding that the "openness of heart" to which believers of all faiths are called includes "the pursuit of goodness, justice and solidarity. It leads to seeking the good of our neighbors."
Pope Francis urged the people of Bangladesh to make openness, acceptance and cooperation the "beating heart" of their nation. Such attitudes, he said, are the only antidote to corruption, "destructive religious ideologies and the temptation to turn a blind eye to the needs of the poor, refugees, persecuted minorities and those who are most vulnerable."
According to a Vatican translation, Farid Uddin Masud, speaking for the Muslim community, told the pope, "it is compassion and love which today's world needs most. The only remedy and solution to the problem of malice, envy and fighting among nations, races and creeds lies in the compassionate love preached and practiced by the great men and women of the world."
Praising the pope for speaking on behalf of "the oppressed, irrespective of religion, caste and nationality," Masud particularly cited Pope Francis' concern for the Rohingya. He said he hoped that the pope's public support would strengthen international efforts to defend their rights.
Anisuzzaman, a famous professor of Bengali literature, told the gathering that in a world torn by strife, the pope's message of encounter and dialogue takes on added importance. "Those of us who are frustrated to find the forces of hatred and cruelty overtaking those of love and compassion can surely find solace in the pope's message of peace and harmony and of fraternity and goodwill," he said, according to the Vatican's translation of his speech. "We note with great relief that the pope has, time and again, expressed his sympathy with the Rohingya from Myanmar, who have been forcibly ejected from their home and earth and subjected to violence and inhuman treatment."
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