Pope leads Dhaka mass before Rohingya meeting
Lillian SUWANRUMPHA (AFP)
Pope Francis led a giant open-air mass in Dhaka on Friday ahead of finally coming face to face with Rohingya refugees whose desperate plight has dominated his landmark tour of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Around 100,000 Bangladeshi Catholics crammed into a park in central Dhaka, cheering and chanting "viva il papa" ("long live the pope") as Francis was driven through the crowd in an open-sided popemobile made specially for the occasion.
Shortly after arriving from neighboring Myanmar late Thursday he urged the world to take "decisive measures" to resolve the crisis that has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing ethnic unrest across the border into overstretched camps in Bangladesh.
The comments marked his first explicit reference to the persecuted Muslim minority since the start of his diplomatically fraught tour.
But as in Myanmar he avoided using the term "Rohingya", seen as incendiary to some in the Buddhist-majority country who deny they are a distinct ethnic group.
Security was tight for Friday's mass, which follows a rise in attacks on religious minorities in Bangladesh by Islamist extremists.
Mainly-Muslim Bangladesh has a tiny Christian population but they turned out in large numbers for Friday's service, many having queued for hours to get into the park where some 4,000 police and security forces had been deployed.
"I feel like I am blessed to join the Pope's prayers," said 60-year-old widow Pronita Mra, who had traveled from her village in northeastern Bangladesh.
"I'll pray for my late husband and parents so that they go to heaven. I hope the Pope will pray for peace and harmony among all communities in Bangladesh."
Tapan Martin, 42 and from Dhaka, said he hoped the pope's prayers would help the Rohingya refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh in their hundreds of thousands since a crackdown by the Myanmar military that began in August.
"We have come to see our great leader. We hope he can help our poor country as well as the Rohingya who have come here," he told AFP.
Francis has praised Bangladesh for giving refuge to the Rohingya who have flooded in, bringing stories of horrific abuse at the hands of the Myanmar military and local Buddhist mobs, including rape, arson and murder.
He called on the world to offer "immediate material assistance" to Bangladesh, an already overcrowded country where one in four lives below the the poverty line, to address their "urgent human needs".
Later Friday he will speak with 16 Rohingya refugees, including two children, who have traveled to Dhaka from the teeming camps on the border to meet him.
"When I meet him, I would like to tell him about our plight, about how Myanmar's military tortured us, killed us, raped our women, about the kind of persecution we have been facing," 35-year-old refugee Abul Fayaz told AFP in Cox's Bazar where the camps are located.
"We want him to help us get Rohingya citizenship, ensure our safety, help us move freely to wherever we want... and most importantly make a way so we can say our prayers with freedom like they (Buddhists) do."
Although the influx has slowed, hundreds of Rohingya refugees are still crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar every day, according to the United Nations.
Francis will also meet Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders during his three days in the country.
His visit comes days after the disappearance of a Catholic priest in the same village where suspected Islamist extremists hacked a Catholic grocer to death last year.
Walter William Rosario, 40, had been making arrangements for some 300 Catholics to travel to Dhaka for the pope's mass.
Since 2015 at least three Christians, including two converts from Islam, have been hacked to death in attacks blamed on Islamist militants.
Christians make up less than 0.5 percent of Bangladesh's population of 160 million and community leaders say some have left as it becomes more difficult to practise their faith openly.
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