Refugees escaping Myanmar hope Pope’s visit will bring peace

A Rohingya Muslim woman carries a sack of rice on her head as she walks through a market at Kutupalong refugee camp on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Bangladesh. Since late August, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar's Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh, where they are living in squalid refugee camps. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (AP) — Many of the refugees who have been flooding into Bangladesh to escape the Myanmar military say they’re hopeful that a visit to the region by Pope Francis will help bring peace.

Francis will be treading a difficult diplomatic line on his visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar, where he is due to arrive Monday afternoon.

While the international community has condemned Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims as “ethnic cleansing,” the Catholic church has resisted the term and defended Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the only hope for democracy.

At the crowded Kutupalong refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, Mohammad Rafiq said he was very happy when he heard about the visit by Francis.

The 20-year-old fled Myanmar last month.

“Our rights, our minority community and our citizenship have been snatched by the Myanmar government,” Rafiq said. “We are hoping that with his talks and his efforts, we will get all of that back.”

Mohammad Nadir Hossain, 25, said the pope will get to see the sad situation that refugees face.

“If he wants, he can calm the Myanmar government down and bring peace by talking to us,” Hossain said. “We are suffering a lot right now. We are very worried. So, we are very grateful that he is coming.”

In Myanmar, Francis will meet with Suu Kyi as well as the powerful head of the nation’s military and Buddhist monks. In Bangladesh, he will meet with a small group of Rohingya but isn’t scheduled to visit the refugee camps.

The question remains whether the pope will even use the term “Rohingya” during the trip.

Myanmar’s local Catholic Church has publicly urged Francis to avoid the term, which is shunned by many locally because the ethnic group is not a recognized minority in the country.

Rohingya in recent months have been subject to what the United Nations describes as a campaign of “textbook ethnic cleansing” by the military in poverty-wracked Rakhine state.

Since violence erupted in late August, more than 620,000 Rohingya men, women, and children have crossed over into Bangladesh from Myanmar, carrying with them tales of persecution, rape, and murder by the Myanmar military and Buddhist vigilantes.

Whatever term Francis uses, refugees like Hamida Begum, 35, believe the pope is visiting Myanmar to help them. She made the treacherous trip to Bangladesh three months ago.

“He can help send us back to Myanmar legally,” she said. “Or he can take us somewhere else from here. Perhaps to some other foreign country. Whatever he wants, he can do.”

Senu Ara, 35, who left Myanmar in September, also welcomes the pope’s visit.

“He might help us get the peace that we are desperately searching for,” she said. “Even if we stay here he will make our situation better. If he decides to send us back, he will do so in a peaceful way.”