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In Myanmar, Pope Calls For Unity But Doesn't Reference Rohingya Muslims


There're a lot of people anxiously listening for what Pope Francis is going to have to say today. The pope is in Myanmar. He's meeting with that country's civilian, military and religious leaders, and the question is what he will say about violence against the country's Rohingya Muslims. Earlier this year, the pope spoke out against what the U.N. has called ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and some are concerned about the impact if the pope repeats that message. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope. She joins us via Skype.

Hi, Sylvia.


GREENE: So why all the concerns here, I mean, if the pope is there to call for peace and to speak out for the Rohingya Muslims, who many see as victims of just terrible violence?

POGGIOLI: Well, the problem is here that the local Catholic church, local church officials - it's a very small community - they advised Pope Francis not to use the name. It's a very - perceived as an inflammatory word, the Rohingya name, in - by the military, which is pretty much still in command of the situation and even by the great majority of Buddhists. The Rohingya Muslims are widely seen here as illegal migrants, and they don't even have citizenship. So there was fear. The Catholic minority feared that if the pope were to use the word Rohingya that could unleash reprisals against Catholics.

GREENE: So we're looking at not just the content of a speech, but, I mean, literally one word and whether he decides to use it or not and what message that would send in either direction.

POGGIOLI: Well, I think, you know, he will definitely - he will try to get his message across as forcefully as he can, avoiding what the powers that be have made taboo words. It will be a semantic and diplomatic test for him. He's known never to mince his words. Now, this morning, we got maybe a little bit of a taste.

He met with - a taste of what he might say because he met with religious leaders of other faiths in Yangon, and Vatican officials said that what Francis stressed was, unity is always a product of diversity. He told them everyone in every religion has their values, their riches, as well as their differences and traditions to share, and this can only happen, he added, if we live in peace, and peace is constructed in a chorus of differences. So I think he will try to sort of, you know, balance the semantic tightrope in some way or another.

GREENE: But Sylvia, I mean, this is a pope who is known for, as you said, not mincing words and also speaking up for the neediest in this world. I mean, what is at stake for him and his reputation?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's a big problem because he, in fact - he's the champion of the downtrodden. He's the moral authority, always speaking out on behalf of refugees and migrants all over the world. But he also has to be very careful not to endanger the lives of this small Catholic minority here in the country.

GREENE: And this is just one stop on a swing through Asia for the pope. Is that right?

POGGIOLI: On Thursday, he travels to Bangladesh, a mostly Muslim country whose Catholics are even smaller proportion of the population than here in Myanmar. But there, they're a pillar of the country's social welfare system with a network of schools and hospitals for everyone - Muslims and Christians. There's been a bit of growing Islamic fundamentalism after years of interreligious coexistence, so the pope is going there also to encourage another small Catholic community in what he's fond of calling the periphery of the world.

GREENE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli traveling with the pope in Myanmar. Sylvia, thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.