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World Oct 9, 2017

Pope's Bangladesh, Burma trip to emphasize peace amid conflict

By Hannah Brockhaus

Pope Francis at the General Audience in St. Peter's Square, Sept. 27, 2017. (Daniel Ibanez / CNA)

ROME (CNA) — In November Pope Francis will visit Bangladesh and Burma, two developing countries in Asia, where he will bring a message of peace and coexistence amid persecution of minorities, a missionary priest said.

“The Pope's visit, in my opinion, will help to emphasize that coexistence helps the future of the country, not conflict,” Father Bernardo Cervellera told CNA.

In particular, Pope Francis will address the plight of the long-persecuted Rohingya people, in whose defence he has spoken out many times.

Rejected by Buddhist fundamentalist groups – Burma's religious majority – the Muslim ethnic group has been largely turned away from the Muslim country of Bangladesh as well, where they have sought refuge.

“So these people don't have a country, they are migrants in the full sense of the term, they have nowhere to lie their head,” Father Cervellera said.

“And so the Pope defends them, to let Christians and Muslims know that we need to help people not on the basis of their creed, or on the basis of their wealth, or their abilities, but simply because they are human beings.”

Father Cervellera, a priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) and editor-in-chief of AsiaNews, has spent time in both Burma and Bangladesh. He spoke about Francis’ upcoming visit to Bangladesh and Burma, also known as Myanmar, Nov. 27-Dec. 2.

Something to note about the visit, he said, is that Catholic population in both countries is very small. In Bangladesh less than three per cent of the population is Catholic and in Burma it’s less than one per cent.

So the Church there is undoubtedly a small minority, he explained, and on top of that, Burma and Bangladesh are still developing, very much placing these countries at the “peripheries of the world.”

“The Pope continues to say: I should go to the peripheries, go out to the peripheries. I find that the Pope really goes to the peripheries to meet with these Catholics and to sustain their mission,” he continued.

In addition to being a minority religion in itself, the Church in these countries is also made up of people from a variety of ethnic minority backgrounds as well.

Besides the Rohingya, during his visit in November the Pope will likely speak out strongly against the ongoing persecution of other minorities in these countries, and “in this case the two things coincide,” Father Cervellera said.

“That is, the Catholic minority is formed from many ethnic minorities. So the Pope speaks of defending minorities because in this way he also defends Catholics.”

“But in the defence of Catholics, the defence of minorities, he wants to speak to the whole society because the way of peace is the most fruitful for everyone,” he emphasized.

Cervellera also stressed that the Catholics in these areas, though a tiny minority, also have a very important mission in their contribution to development. Because of the Church “there are hospitals, shelters, clinics for the poor, schools, professional schools, colleges, work cooperatives,” he said.

“The Church is a help to the society, to evolve, to mature.”

He also said that he has been to both Bangladesh and Burma and can say that they are “very enthusiastic communities in their faith.” Their faith is “what gives meaning to their life, what gives it color and dignity,” he said.

Though they sometimes face persecution and oppression because of their minority status, this seems to only strengthen their catholicity, he pointed out, finding consolation in having a larger, universal identity to which they also belong.

Though the Catholics in these two countries are among the poorest, living in huts and sleeping on dirt floors, “they are joyous,” he said, and they wish to share the faith with others.

“I think that we can learn from them, this enthusiasm. And maybe we can support them in some way. Because their mission is also ours,” he pointed out.