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Pope Francis in Myanmar: Diplomacy, the Military Establishment, and God’s Call for Reconciliation

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.

The Razor’s Edge

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Myanmar on Sunday, 26 November. I have previously written about the history of the Rohingya and their persecution by the Burmese military. Indeed, “persecution” is putting it lightly. The military has raped, tortured, displaced, and murdered the Rohingya who have been fleeing to Bangladesh by the hundreds of thousands. In Bangladesh, the Rohingya face further difficulties in overcrowded, underfunded refugee camps. In the past, Pope Francis has shown sympathy for what he calls his “Rohingya brethren.” He has called upon us to pray for them and has placed a call- to -action for good people everywhere to rise up and help them.

Pope Francis is renowned for his care and concern for the poor and downtrodden, but this visit will be a real test of his diplomacy. If he strikes too hard, the Rohingya are sure to suffer even further at the cruel hands of the Burmese military. Moreover, he risks the health and safety of the nation’s Catholics. They are a small minority, only 700,000 in a country of 53 million. They would be defenseless targets should a freshly enraged and reenergized military choose to lash out. Top advisors have warned him that even saying the word “Rohingya” could harm both the Rohingya and Christians within the country’s borders, as the military doesn’t recognize the Rohingya people or their history.

At the same time, calling them Rohingya would affirm their identity in a country that has been desperately trying to erase their history and obliterate any record of their very existence. Pope Francis is intending to use his power and influence to create peace and reconciliation, but one must wonder how much influence a Catholic pope could have in a predominantly Buddhist nation. Though one might hope that His Holiness might make a strong push for equality and human rights, by doing so he may inflame tensions and harm the very people he’s trying to help. This visit will require style, finesse, and if it’s to be successful, wisdom that can only come from God himself.

Many experts are divided about whether or not the pope should go to Myanmar given the risks involved. They question if it’s the right thing to do, or his place to interfere. Only time will tell if his visit is successful, but there is no question about whether his visit is the Christian thing to do. Leviticus 25 reminds us that the earth is God's and we're all foreigners.The Burmese military has no more right to the land than the Rohingya, both were there for centuries. The land belongs to the Lord and we are to be its stewards. Staining the soil with the blood of their brothers brings grief to the God who created them. As Christians we all must do our part to heal a broken world.There is much that is evil and we are not called to sit idly by and pray for the evil to cease. We are to pray, and then act. God is with the Rohingya people and He doesn’t wish for them to suffer. The Rohingya were made in God’s image. (Genesis 1:26) Jesus died on the cross so that through Him, they would be saved. (John 3:16) God sees their plight and He grieves with them.


This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.

— Jesus, John 15:12

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority, but God never told us that our love begins and ends with fellow Christians or members of our own race. God told us to love our neighbors. Full stop. In the New Testament, when a Pharisee asked who his neighbors were, Jesus told the famous story of the Good Samaritan. In that parable, a man was beaten by robbers and left for dead. A priest and a Levite went out of their way not to help the dying man. Instead it was a Samaritan, a despised religious and racial minority, who went to great pains to ensure that the stranger received proper care. We are to love our neighbors. The Rohingya are our neighbors, and we are called to be like the proverbial Samaritan and rescue them.

In the New Testament, Jesus instructed us to love the Samaritans, while the Old Testament tells the story of Ruth. The Book of Ruth stresses that Ruth was a Moabitess who lived in Moab. (A tribe which descended from Lot’s son, Moab. The Moabites were bitter enemies of Israel.) Ruth was a widow who had a close relationship with her mother- in- law, Naomi, who was from Bethlehem, in Judah. A widow herself, Naomi made the decision to move back to Judah following the deaths of her sons. Ruth, unwilling to leave her beloved mother-in-law, followed her to Bethlehem where she gleaned the fields for food. Ruth risked a lot in her move to Bethlehem. She faced persecution in a land where no one would protect her. Instead of persecution, however, she was treated well. She caught the attention of Boaz, owner of the field from which she gathered. They eventually married and she gave birth to a son, Obed, who was the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of King David, ancestor to Jesus Christ. Not a bad fate for a religious minority.

Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?

— Malachi 2:10

We Are Our Brother’s Keeper

The Israelites and members of the early church had their problems with prejudice and racism. Even Peter, the rock on which Jesus built His church, was guilty of prejudice. In his letter to Galatia, 2:11 the apostle Paul calls out Peter for acting hypocritically towards the Gentiles. This is the fallibility of human nature and contrary to God’s command that we love one another. Hebrews 13:2-3: Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who were mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Jesus himself often admonished His followers to take care of the needy. In Luke 14, while in the house of a prominent Pharisee, He assured the host that anyone who provides for the poor, crippled, lame, or blind will be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous.

God loves all of His children, and He instructed us to do likewise. Dueteronomy 10:18 put it plainly: “And God loves the stranger.” Why the stranger? German philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) explained it best; “The stranger was to be protected although he was not a member of one’s family, clan, religion, community, or people; simply because he was a human being. In the stranger, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.” Anybody can love their family and friends, as Christians we are to extend our circle of compassion to everyone, especially those who are in the most need.

Pope Francis understands this command. He is bringing the light of Jesus into a region filled with the darkness of violence. He is spreading God's gospel of compassion as he attempts to restore dignity to the Rohingya. Right now he needs our prayers. We should pray for God to bestow wisdom and diplomacy on the pope as he undertakes this sensitive mission. We should pray that the Burmese military open their hearts to forgiveness and peace, and that harmony will finally be restored to the war torn nation. We should pray without ceasing that one day peace will be reign.

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

— Galatians 5:14

© 2017 Anna Watson


Asif Iqbal Samad from Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 28, 2017:

Humble apologies for being scratchy with elaboration, punctuation and etiquette. Had to type last few posts from a palm-held.

The scenario in Rakhaine is more to do with, Myanmar demonstrating its new foothold.

There will be a few upcoming issues with a few neighbours, most to do with political and diplomatic settlements on future major projects, such as, off shore drilling for natural resources (where ocean borders will become issues), and future investment attractions for infrastructure and major artery of the web of communication between China, Bhutan, Nepal, India all the way to Hanoi, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia.

Myanmar just demonstrated its stature, how it can handle itself by playing domino principle in the global stage. For any issues with them are given a second thought.

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Rakhine scenario was an excuse that served other purposes, but more importantly a note of reminder for future.

Asif Iqbal Samad from Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 28, 2017:

The refugees' fate will not brighten up so easily.

The livelihoods offered by underworld will be easiest means, and many might fall for them.

The slave trade in Libya is probably worse, EU trying hard to contain it, because it affects the EU refugee crisis. They are related.

But for Rohingya

Prayers are needed. More too, but how?

Asif Iqbal Samad from Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 28, 2017:

Admirable spirit.

You are not wrong to say, more should have been done. But at the scale necessary, was not only difficult, very complicated. .

See if I can fit in a few lines quickly..

Rakhine racial difference is history of 500 years. Some violence over racial tension twice before, during the BritishRaj imposing some rules, and again when they were being overturned, nearly a century ago, but nothing like we are seeing today.

The recent violence has been noticed over last couple of years.

Such is the relation between the two neighbouring countries, not to annoy Myanmar, ............. xxxx the Bangladesh authorities tried to push back the refugees. The reason is so sad, allowing them entry would appear to the world Bangladesh cashing in on an opportunity, a negative publicity against Myanmar.

There has been no evidence of actual militia attack in Myanmar, if the so claimed attacks were falsified... there never has been neutral investigation.

If a bomb attack had occurred on a police station, might be true, in a drug plantation zone.. there is little chance it was militia. The drug smuggling across the border is worth billions of dollars. And apart from 2 such attacks....(you get te idea).. you crash on a million innocent civilians?

But, see if you understand how sad the reason behind pushing the refugees back was... accepting the refugees would make Bangladesh officially acknowledge ... there has been a genocide, with its position in the region, Myanmar is too high up in priorities for both the God Fathers in the belt....China and India.

However, at the end of August the flood of refugees was overwhelming for Bangladesh border security forces, and the destitude picture was .. they had to let them in. But has Bangladesh ever managed to complain to the world .. a genocide .. the word mentioned?

When Jon Kerry visited, things were quite pathetic too, he said no more than what Pope Francis said in his speech.. ( no disrespect meant)

Only after the first flood of refugees, it was Erdogan's wife, who came personally to assure, their government would provide assistance in every way..and did more than she committed to

But you see, no voice of protest from anywhere else.

BBC did some serious investigative reports, and i myself was shocked to see, there truly was not much evidence of militia activity apart from suspicious claims, which appeared to be just excuses to conduct the g

Anna Watson (author) from Atlanta, GA on November 28, 2017:

Asif, my friend, when it comes to politics, even religion is political. Politics tends to taint everything it touches. I agree with you that this isn't so much Buddhists against Muslims, I think it's more racism, hatred, and like you said- politics. But it is the duty of their religious leaders to stand up and condemn the violence, and I'm not seeing that. Maybe I'm missing it though, I would like to be wrong on this issue. I had written before on the history of the struggle, it is something that is important to me that we solve it. It is an indictment against the global community that we have allowed it to continue for as long as it has. We must all stand up to injustice, violence, and oppression. Condemnation, without action, becomes condoning. Globally, we share the guilt.

Right now, the pope is the only one engaged in meaningful discourse. As expected, he couldn't win. His diplomacy is drawing fire from human rights communities already. I suppose only a push for more violence will be the only thing that satisfies some people.

Asif Iqbal Samad from Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 28, 2017:

An initiative, nevertheless.

Asif Iqbal Samad from Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 27, 2017:

More since then, but only since then

Asif Iqbal Samad from Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 27, 2017:

One of the few who started major coverage then, while the atrocities were well-known for much longer

Asif Iqbal Samad from Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 27, 2017:

Have read through the link Jay O'Brien pasted.

The Pope's initiative has to be appreciated, admired and taken seriously.

Personally, I am almost as skeptical as Anna Watson. For different reasons.

I sincerely do not believe, religions have any issue here. Pope Francis does not need to justify if it is religious issue or not. What is wrong, should be seen as wrong by any religion.

Where my fear is, this is strictly a cross-fire of financial interests over huge financial potential that will surface soon in the Rakhaiyne region. Though, many multi-national firms will have their roles in the near future, at the moment few nations will try to allure Myanmar to be in good terms. China in recent times have gained domination over this belt and continue to grow further. While others, such as India not with much chance of gaining as much as China would, but remains hopeful, things might just allow them some opportunity. And whoever has such intentions will remain silent about whatever Myanmar might decide to do ..

Whereas, US which had over the last few years have not been any more than "politically correct" level way of neutral to Myanmar's decisions, now, since the US President's visit to China and the region, they are certain, their chances of taking part in the regional boom is only fading.

And only upon such realization, the little pre-voiced warnings since 25th August 2017, now only in the recent weeks, western media have started to turn up the volume.

Such is politics. Giving religious colouring over what is purely financial and territorial --- As much as whatever is occurring in Rakhaiyne is far from any doctrine of Buddhism or Islam should tolerate.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on November 27, 2017:

I agree with you, but the leadership of Catholics, Buddhist, etc. should call upon the leading Imams to see what they are really like. What do you think of the following article?

Anna Watson (author) from Atlanta, GA on November 26, 2017:

Love that quote, thank you for sharing it.

I'm proud of the pope for wading into the fray, but honestly I'm skeptical of how much he can accomplish. At least he's doing something though, that's more than I can say for most leaders. Myanmar is largely Buddhist so I think the Dalai Lama would have greater sway than either Pope Francis or any Imam that goes there. Perhaps his Christianity may be seen as neutral and therefore more effective? Mere speculation on my part, I genuinely don't know.

I understand where you're coming from by suggesting an Imam go there, but I fear that may make it worse for the Rohingya. It's delicate enough with the pope there.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on November 26, 2017:

"Violence by man against man is in contradiction with any religion worthy of that name," Pope Francis January 18, 2016.

The situation of fighting is of course terrible. Why not call upon Muslim leaders (Imams) to excommunicate followers who harm other people? If they do, the offenders are isolated. If the Imams do Not excommunicate violent followers, they (the Imams) show themselves not to be worthy of the position. Jihad is supposed to be a peaceful activity.

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