Pope Francis in Myanmar, Nov. 27. CNS photo/Paul Haring via NCR

Why did Pope Francis speak about religious diversity and freedom while visiting Myanmar and not mention the persecuted Rohingya, who have been forced from the country in their hundreds of thousands by a military crackdown? That is the question being asked, accusingly, in reports of the Pope’s visit this week.

To quote the New York Times, why couldn’t he live up to his reputation as “the world’s megaphone against injustice”?

There is more than one answer. But first, another question: why did he go to Myanmar at all? Here is Francis himself in his address to government authorities, civil societies, and the diplomatic corps:

“I have come, above all, to pray with the nation’s small but fervent Catholic community, to confirm them in their faith, and to encourage them in their efforts to contribute to the good of the nation.”

The visit, as he next noted,

“comes soon after the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the Holy See.  I would like to see this decision as a sign of the nation’s commitment to pursuing dialogue and constructive cooperation within the greater international community, even as it strives to renew the fabric of civil society.”

Catholics amongst the Burmese are persecuted in Myanmar, too — some of the ethnic minorities are Christian, including Catholic, and not long ago, the Burmese military was trying to wipe them out.  Given that the military are still in de facto control of the country, the Pope can hardly have wanted to make them – and the civilian majority — more hostile to the Catholic population while failing to improve the lot of the Rohingya, or other minorities, at all. Do military strongmen defer to popes?

So that is one reason. The Pope’s first call is to look after his own beleaguered sheep, not to be a “megaphone” for the world’s virtuous when it suits them.

Secondly, the local pastor, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, and other advisors had urged him not to use the term Rohingya – for precisely the reason above. Isn’t it prudent to take his advice? We have no idea what Francis said in private, either.

Thirdly, what he did say was pointed enough. For example:

“I would also like my visit to embrace the entire population of Myanmar and to offer a word of encouragement to all those who are working to build a just, reconciled and inclusive social order.  Myanmar has been blessed with great natural beauty and resources, yet its greatest treasure is its people, who have suffered greatly, and continue to suffer, from civil conflict and hostilities that have lasted all too long and created deep divisions. As the nation now works to restore peace, the healing of those wounds must be a paramount political and spiritual priority.


“Indeed, the arduous process of peacebuilding and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights. … 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 would impossible to read this speech without thinking of the Rohingya – or, indeed, of what he said at the Vatican three months ago (and quoted this week by The Times) when he referred to “the persecution of our Rohingya brothers,” and also said:

“I would like to express my full closeness to them, and let all of us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of good will to help them, who shall give them their full rights.”

The media want a sound bite that they can quote, but the Pope’s mission in Myanmar was both pastoral and diplomatic. Is international diplomacy supposed to be conducted with sound bites and Twitter? Do they want the Pope to become another Donald Trump? Should he become very specific about the problem in North Korea?

Another thing: although we have given up and accept it as a fact of life, the NYTimes et al are happy to overlook ghastly human rights abuses if they involve abortion. So one can’t always tell whether they are really concerned about human rights, or just virtue signalling. In this case I think it’s the latter.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet