ROME—Pope Francis is set to embark on one of the most delicate political dances of his tenure when he leaves for Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar) this weekend.
The potential pitfalls of this trip are already being compared to his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI’s deadly comments about Islam in 2006 that led to outrage in the Muslim world, the murder of a Catholic nun, and the destruction of several churches.
Many Catholic commentators worry that whatever Francis says on this trip will have a similar effect.
“Pope Francis makes a visit to Myanmar where he risks either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” Thomas Reese, a Jesuit journalist priest, wrote at Religion News Service this week. “I have great admiration for the Pope and his abilities, but someone should have talked him out of making this trip.”
Francis’ voyage comes on the heels of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s harsh condemnation of the government of Burma and includes stops in both Burma and Bangladesh.
“These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering,” Tillerson said on Wednesday. “After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.”
If Francis uses the same tone, or even says the word Rohingya, he could set off deadly retaliatory protests against Christians in the region. Muslims of Rakhine state in Burma use the term to define themselves, but it is not recognized by the government, the military, or the large Buddhist population in Burma—they instead claim the Muslim minority are Bengalis who settled in the country illegally.
Charles Maung Bo, Burma’s first-ever cardinal, who was tapped by Francis last year, urged Francis not to use the “R-word” when he met with the pope in Rome ahead of the apostolic visit. “If he doesn’t use it, the international community will say something,” Bo told the Catholic website Crux this week. “If he does use it, then it could be very bad for the military, the government and the Buddhist community.”
Bo says he told Francis that he should use a term like “Muslims of Rakhine state” when he meets with officials in Burma, including Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s top military brass. For the record, Francis has already used the word when condemning what he called the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers” after violence erupted in August.
Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday that the word Rohingya is “not a prohibited word” but would not say whether the pope planned to use it.
He has shown no mercy for those who might seek to build barriers, speculating that Donald Trump was “not a Christian” for wanting to construct the Mexican border wall back when he was a candidate for the presidency. He rarely misses an opportunity to preach about the importance of treating refugees and migrants with dignity, even at the cost of national security.
After leaving Burma on Nov. 30, Francis will spend two days in Bangladesh, where he will meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka. More than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma and are living in deplorable refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Father Reese writes that even despite the high stakes, Francis may just be able to pull off the visit without sparking protests. “This is not the first visit of Pope Francis to a troubled land. He visited the Middle East in 2014, and Cuba and the Central African Republic in 2015. Those trips were almost universally deemed successes,” Reese wrote. “If he is equally successful in Myanmar, I will not be surprised to see him walk on water.”