Sat, Dec 02, 2017 - Page 1 News List

Pope Francis leads Dhaka Mass before meeting Rohingya

AFP, DHAKA

Pope Francis greets Bangladeshi Christians as he arrives to lead a Mass in Dhaka yesterday.

Photo: AFP

Pope Francis yesterday led a giant open-air Mass in Dhaka ahead of finally meeting with Rohingya refugees whose desperate plight has dominated his landmark tour of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

About 100,000 Bangladeshi Catholics crammed into a park in central Dhaka, cheering and chanting “viva il papa” (“long live the pope”) as Francis was driven through the crowd in an open-sided popemobile made especially for the occasion.

Shortly after arriving from neighboring Myanmar late on Thursday he urged the world to take “decisive measures” to resolve the crisis that has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee ethnic unrest across the border into overstretched camps in Bangladesh.

The comments marked his first explicit reference to the Muslim minority since the start of his diplomatically fraught tour.

However, he avoided using the term “Rohingya,” seen as incendiary to some in Buddhist-majority Myanmar who deny they are a distinct ethnic group.

Security was tight for the Mass, which followed a rise in attacks on religious minorities in Bangladesh by Muslim extremists.

Bangladesh has a tiny Christian population, but they turned out in large numbers for the service, many having lined up for hours to get into the park where about 4,000 police and security forces had been deployed.

“I feel like I am blessed to join the pope’s prayers,” said 60-year-old widow Pronita Mra, who traveled from her village in northeastern Bangladesh. “I’ll pray for my late husband and parents so that they go to heaven. I hope the pope will pray for peace and harmony among all communities in Bangladesh.”

Dhaka resident Tapan Martin, 42, said he hoped the pope’s prayers would help the Rohingya refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh by the hundreds of thousands since a crackdown by the Burmese military that began in August.

“We have come to see our great leader. We hope he can help our poor country, as well as the Rohingya who have come here,” he told reporters.

Francis has praised Bangladesh for giving refuge to the Rohingya, who have flooded in, bringing stories of horrific abuse at the hands of the Burmese military and local Buddhist mobs, including rape, arson and murder.

He called on the world to offer “immediate material assistance” to Bangladesh, an already overcrowded country where one in four live below the poverty line, to address their “urgent human needs.”

Later yesterday he was to meet with 16 Rohingya refugees, including two children, who traveled to Dhaka from the teeming camps on the border to meet him.

“When I meet him, I would like to tell him about our plight, about how Myanmar’s military tortured us, killed us, raped our women, about the kind of persecution we have been facing,” 35-year-old refugee Abul Fayaz told reporters in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where the camps have been established.

“We want him to help us get Rohingya citizenship, ensure our safety, help us move freely to wherever we want ... and most importantly, make a way so we can say our prayers with freedom like they [Buddhists] do,” he added.

Francis is scheduled to also meet Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders during his three days in the country.

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