The pontiff can help Myanmar’s Muslims, but the best way is behind the scenes.
By Robert P. George Nov. 30, 2017 7:06 pm ET
Pope Francis was in Myanmar this week spreading the Word of God. Many observers wondered if he would use a specific word: Rohingya. Barring an unforeseen statement—always possible on the papal plane home—it appears the Holy Father won’t, though he alluded to the crisis the word evokes.
Rohingya is the name of a persecuted religious and ethnic minority in the nation once known as Burma, where about 88% of people practice the Theravada Buddhist religion. The Rohingya are Muslims loathed and feared by those who insist on calling them “Bengalis,” as if they were foreigners in their own country. They are also targets of various forms of legally sanctioned discrimination and humiliation. Recently Myanmar’s military authorities have subjected them to ethnic cleansing. This has left between 600,000 and 900,000 of Myanmar’s 2.2 million Rohingya as refugees in bordering Bangladesh.
The word Rohingya offends the group’s persecutors. That’s because it implies recognition of the humanity and basic rights the Myanmar government denies. This would seem to create a perfect opportunity for Pope Francis, which is why human-rights activists called on him to speak the word boldly in public. But silence and speaking out both come with serious risks.
When I served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, my colleagues and I spoke out forcefully for the Rohingya—always referring to them by name. We urged government officials to do the same. I still believe it was the right strategy. And Daniel Mark, the commission’s new chairman, has continued the policy.
Yet my experience helped me appreciate that sometimes speaking indirectly in public is advisable, and the best place to defend the persecuted forcefully is behind the scenes. Pope Francis and his advisers had to struggle over whether a more confrontational approach to the Myanmar government—one in which he would defiantly refer to the Rohingya by name—would backfire. It could lead to retaliation against the country’s even smaller Catholic minority and a deepening of the persecution of the Rohingya themselves.
The Catholic Church has some experience with this kind of retaliation. In 1942 the Dutch Episcopate, led by Bishop Johannes de Jong, issued a statement explicitly condemning the Nazis’ deportation of Jews. The Germans retaliated by rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of Catholics of Jewish background, including the nun-philosopher, and now saint, Edith Stein. To avoid further retaliation of this sort, Catholic leaders adopted a policy of speaking less directly, though not necessarily less clearly.
In his Christmas message of 1942, Pope Pius XII condemned the persecution of “hundreds of thousands who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death.” No one doubted the pontiff was speaking about the persecution of the Jews, though he did not use the word. The New York Times praised him as “a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”
Should Pope Francis have spoken the word Rohingya? Myanmar’s Catholic leader, Archbishop Charles Maung Bo, has publicly and pointedly used the word. He did so in 2016, during a speech to the British Parliament. Yet Cardinal Bo advised the pope—who referred to the Rohingya by name in August at the Vatican—not to use it during his visit. I strongly suspect the cardinal’s advice made the difference.
Instead, Pope Francis declared earlier this week: “The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group—none excluded—to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”
It isn’t hard to see the pope was referring to the Rohingya. “None excluded” drives the point home and leaves no room for misunderstanding. Nor does anyone doubt that the pope brought the Rohingya up during his meetings with the civilian and military leadership of Myanmar. Yet he will continue to be criticized, as Pius XII was, for not being more direct in public.
It’s true that the pope’s decision provided a small public-relations victory for Myanmar’s government. On the narrow point, the regime got its way. And I would have advised the pope to find an opportunity to say the word deftly—perhaps as an aside in a context that did not involve directly denouncing the persecution. But even this solution would have entailed risk.
Yielding a talking point to the regime had to be weighed against the risk of retaliation against the Catholic minority—or even deepening human-rights abuses against the Rohingya themselves. There is room to debate whether Pope Francis should have gambled on a more confrontational strategy. But no one should call him unreasonable for being cautious, especially when thousands of lives are at stake.
Mr. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, was chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom between 2013 and 2016.