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Pope says 'Rohingya' in emotional encounter with Burma refugees

Pope Francis has asked for forgiveness from refugees in Bangladesh for the hurt and persecution they have endured, and spoke the word he had avoided days earlier in Burma: "Rohingya".

In a deeply moving encounter in Dhaka, Francis greeted and blessed a group of Rohingya Muslim refugees, grasping their hands and listening to their stories in a show of public solidarity amid Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades.

He apologised for the "indifference of the world" to their plight and then pronounced the name of their ethnic group to a gathering of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian leaders.

"The presence of God today is also called 'Rohingya'," he said.

The 16 Rohingya - 12 men, two women and two young girls - had traveled to Dhaka from Cox's Bazar, the district bordering Burma where refugee camps are overflowing with more than 620,000 Rohingya who have fled what the UN says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Burma's military.

The campaign has included the burning of villages and fleeing Rohingya have described rape and shootings by Burmese soldiers and Buddhist mobs that left them no option but to make the dangerous and sometimes deadly journey through jungles and by sea to Bangladesh.

The Burma government has denied any such campaign is under way. The army says "clearance operations" are targeting militants who attacked security positions in August.

Burma's government and most of the Buddhist majority opoose the term "Rohingya", saying the members of the Muslim minority are "Bengalis" who migrated illegally from Bangladesh.

Burma does not acknowledge them as a local ethnic group and will not give them citizenship, even though they have lived in Burma for generations.

One by one, each of the refugees approached the Pope at the end of the event in the tented garden of the Dhaka archbishop's residence.

Francis blessed one little girl, placing his hand on her head, and grasped the shoulder of a young man. The women who approached him pushed aside their headscarves so they could speak, offering their hands out for him to hold.

"Maybe we can't do much for you, but your tragedy has a place in our hearts," hetold them.

His voice trembling with emotion, he continued: "In the name of all those who persecute you, who have persecuted you, and those who have hurt you, above all in the indifference of the world, I ask you for forgiveness. Forgiveness."

Citing the "big heart" of Bangladesh that welcomed them, Francis said: "Now I appeal to your big hearts, that you are able to grant us the forgiveness that we seek."

He called for continued aid for the refugees, and continued advocacy "so that their rights are recognised".

"We won't close our hearts. We won't look away," he said.

Francis had refrained from publicly raising the crisis or using the word Rohingya in Burma out of diplomatic deference to his hosts. The Holy See only established diplomatic relations with Burma in May, and the local Catholic Church had begged Francis not to create waves - and possible problems for them - by using the term.

Human rights organisations and Rohingya had voiced disappointment at his public silence, given he had previously denounced the persecution of "our Rohingya brothers and sisters" at the Vatican.

The Vatican defended it as diplomatically necessary, and stressed that his silence in public did not negate what he had said in the past, or what he was saying in private.

Francis' encounter with the refugees was the highlight of his day that began with a Mass to ordain 16 new priests.

Bangladesh's tiny Catholic community represents a fraction of 1% of the majority Muslim population of 160 million.

Despite its small size, the Catholic Church runs a network of schools, orphanages and clinics and has enjoyed relative freedom in its work, although Christian missionaries say they have received threats.

In his homily ordaining 16 new priests, Francis thanked those who came out for the Mass, noting that some people had travelled two days to attend.

"Thank you for your generosity," Francis said. "This indicates the love that you have for the church."

AP

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