Francis: Burmese treatment of Rohingya minority a form of ‘war’

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has again entered into controversial geopolitical territory, saying sharply Friday that Burmese treatment of its populous and persecuted Rohingya minority constitutes war against them.

In remarks to a group of young people at the Vatican that partly focused on the role of conflict and tension in daily life, the pontiff spoke of global conflicts “that do not know how to resolve and end up in war.”

“Let’s think of those brothers of ours of the Rohingya,” the pope continued, referring to the Burmese minority of some 1.3 million people who attracted global media attention earlier in the year because of their boat migration by the tens of thousands to other countries across Southeast Asia.

“They were chased from one country and from another and from another,” Francis said of the situation. “When they arrived at a port or a beach, they gave them a bit of water or a bit to eat and were there chased out to the sea.”

“This is a conflict that has not resolved, and this is war, this is called violence, this is called killing!” he continued.

“It is true: If I have a conflict with you and I kill you, the conflict is over,” said the pope, crying out: “But this is not the way!”

The Rohingya people are an ethnic group mainly located in the western part of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Some 25,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar by boat between last January and March alone, according to UN estimates.

The Rohingya are not recognized by the Burmese government and are also not granted citizenship. Some 810,000 people in Myanmar are without citizenship, according to the UN estimates.

Francis spoke of the Rohingya’s situation as part of a lengthy, off the cuff discourse with the youth at the Vatican that also saw him give extensive, personal advice on how young people should live with tension and conflict in their families and daily lives.

The pope was speaking to youth who are part of the Eucharistic Youth Movement, an international Catholic group that seeks to form young people in spirituality and faith. The group is hosting an international congress in Rome to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Answering questions posed by six of the youth members, the pope also spoke of the greatest difficulties he has faced in his own spiritual life and reiterated his common exhortation for young people to get to know their grandparents.

But Francis spoke most of at length about the role of conflict and tension in life.

“What would a society, a family, a group of friends be without tensions and without conflicts? Do you know what it would be?” he asked the youth.

“A cemetery,” said the pope. “Because there are only no tensions and no conflicts in dead things. When there is life, there is tension and there is conflict.”

“How is a tension resolved?” the pontiff asked. “With dialog. When in a family there is dialog, when in a family there is this capacity to say spontaneously something someone is thinking, tensions resolve themselves well.”

“Do not have fear of tensions!” he exhorted the group. “But also, be cunning! Because if you love the tension for the tension, this will make you ill and you will be a young person that loves always being in tensions. No: This no. Tension comes to help us make a step towards harmony.”

The pope spoke of the situation of the Rohingya in response to a question from a young Indonesian man, who had asked about conflicts in his own country.

“Conflict, to be well undertaken, must be oriented towards unity,” Francis said. “In a society like yours that has one culture with many diverse cultures inside it, you have to search for unity but with respect for each identity.”

“Conflicts resolve themselves in respecting identities,” he said.

The pontiff then spoke of the Middle East, saying that many religious minorities across the region, especially Christians, are not being respected and are being persecuted or killed for their beliefs.

In response to the question about his own greatest spiritual struggle, Francis said that his greatest struggle is to know how to distinguish between the kind of peace granted by God and that offered by the Devil.

Where Jesus offers a peace of deep joy, the pope said, the Devil offers a “superficial” peace that only makes you happy for a short time. Inside the Devil’s kind of peace, he said, there is a “scam.”

“Here it is necessary to ask this grace, to know how to distinguish, to know how to know which is the peace of Jesus and which is the peace that comes from the enemy, that destroys you,” said Francis.

“The Devil always destroys,” said the pope. “He makes you believe that this is the way, and then, at the end, he leaves you alone. “

“Remember this,” Francis continued. “The Devil is a bad salary-giver; he never pays well; always scams you! He is a crook! He disguises things so you believe that they are good, that they give you peace, so you go to them and at the end you do not find happiness.”

“What is the sign of the peace of Jesus?” the pope asked. “The sign is that joy, the deep joy: the Devil never gives you joy. He gives you a bit of fun; he makes a bit of the circus, makes you happy for a moment, but does not give joy.”

Francis ended his audience with the youth by asking them to remember to speak to their grandparents, who he called the “great forgottens” of our time.

Grandparents, the pope said, “have the memory of life, the memory of faith, the memory of tensions, the memory of conflicts.”

Recalling an anecdote, the pontiff said that at one of his recent general audiences in St. Peter’s Square he saw an older woman in the crowd and had his driver stop the popemobile to greet her.

Getting out of the car, he said he asked the woman her age. Saying she was 92, Francis said he asked her “recipe” in order to live so long.

“I eat ravioli!” the pontiff said she responded, joking.

“This is an anecdote to tell you that you always find a surprise with grandparents,” Francis told the youth. “Grandparents always surprise us: They know how to listen to us, they have patience.”

The pope ended the audience with a sense of encouragement in what he has called a violent era, of a “third world war fought piecemeal.”

“The world is at war,” he told the young people. “But there are many beautiful and good things. There are many hidden saints among the People of God.”

“God is present,” said Francis, repeating: “God is present. And there are many signs of hope for going forward. Have courage and go forward!”

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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