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Pope explains omission of Rohingya from Myanmar speech

REUTERS/Max Rossi
Pope Francis is welcomed as he arrives at Yangon International Airport, Myanmar November 27, 2017.

Pope Francis defended his decision to avoid using the term "Rohingya" from his speech in Myanmar, saying he believed that he got his message across without shutting down dialogue with the country's leaders.

Speaking to reporters on the way to Rome from Bangladesh, the pope said that he had realized that he would be "slamming the door in the face" of the local government if he had used the term during his speech.

"For me, the most important thing is that message gets through, to try to say things one step at a time and listen to the responses," the pontiff said, as reported by Reuters.

"I knew that if in the official speeches I would have used that word, they would have closed the door in our faces. But (in public) I described situations, rights, said that no one should be excluded, (the right to) citizenship, in order to allow myself to go further in the private meetings," he continued.

The pontiff contended that he had been firm about the need to respect the rights of Rohingya refugees during his private meetings with Myanmar's military.

When asked if he used the term during the private meeting, the pope replied, "I used words in order to arrive at the message and when I saw that the message had arrived, I dared to say everything that I wanted say."

Francis did not use the word Rohingya in his public speech during the first leg of his trip in Myanmar. The predominantly Buddhist country rejects the use of the term as it does not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group, but rather as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

The pope had been advised by local Roman Catholic Church authorities not to say the word as it could set off a backlash against Christians and other minority groups in Myanmar.

Since late August, over 625,000 Rohingyas from Myanmar had been forced to flee to Bangladesh to escape the military's crackdown on the mostly Muslim ethnic group. The crackdown reportedly came in response to Rohingya militant attacks on an army base and police posts on Aug. 25.

Francis disclosed that he wept during an emotional meeting with a group of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, where he is able to defend their rights by name.

On Friday, in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, he told the Rohingyas that God's presence was within them and they should be respected.

"I was crying and tried to hide it," Francis told the reporters, recounting how he was moved when the refugees narrated their ordeals to him. 

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