In late August, the New York Times reported on a controversy only a pope like Francis would bother to court. Like many of his fellow Jesuits, Pope Francis exudes enthusiasm for every religion except his own. Out of this hyper-ecumenism has come a torrent of flaky tributes to what his predecessors would have called “false religions” and silly trips to remote countries with almost no Catholics. The Times reported on one such upcoming trip to Myanmar/Burma: “Pope’s Planned Visit to Myanmar Risks Stoking Religious Tensions.”
The tensions to which the article refers don’t involve Catholics. There aren’t enough of them around to start a fight. The article refers to the fighting between Muslims and Buddhists. The latter group evidently finds the pope’s Islamophilia annoying and wants him to keep his nose out of their business. In February, Pope Francis rebuked Burma’s Buddhists for mistreating Muslims from Bangladesh who call themselves the Rohingya: “They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith.”
The Times gingerly approaches this squabbling among two groups of religionists it normally wants to protect and sanitize. The Times is also loath to criticize an interfering liberal pope. But even from its elliptical reporting one gets the sense that the Buddhists would prefer that the pope virtue-signal somewhere else:
Even before the pope’s expected visit to Myanmar has been officially announced, it has become the subject of boisterous contention in a country riven by religious and ethnic tension.
While Myanmar’s main political and religious leaders described the visit of Pope Francis as a potential salve for the country’s troubles, hard-line Buddhist nationalists warned the pope against using it to champion the Rohingya — a persecuted Muslim minority that many Buddhists in Myanmar insist are from neighboring Bangladesh, even though Rohingya families have lived in the country for generations.
“There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That’s false,” said Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist monk in the former royal capital, Mandalay, and a leader of a hard-line Buddhist movement, Ma Ba Tha, that Myanmar’s top Buddhist authority has tried to suppress. He said he viewed the expected visit as “political instigation.”
The expected visit, from Nov. 27 to 29, would be the first to Myanmar, also known as Burma, by any pope…
Meanwhile, Burma’s Catholic bishops have in effect asked the pope not to behave like a Muslim tool during the visit, according to UCANEWS, an Asian Catholic news site:
The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) have suggested to Pope Francis not to use the term “Rohingya” when he visits Myanmar for three days in November.
The CBCM put forward their suggestion to the pope’s representative in the country Archbishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, during their bi-annual meeting in June.
“We just gave suggestions that the word Rohingya remains a sensitive issue in the country and it is better not to use it during his visit,” said Archbishop Alexander Pyone Cho of Pyay, whose diocese covers Rakhine State.
The bishops made their suggestion after they became aware of the pope’s plan to switch the first leg of his trip from India to Myanmar.
Leaked news of the pope’s visit earlier created unrest on social media in the country, which has suffered simmering tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya in Rakhine State since 2012.
The pope has referred to his “Rohingya brothers,” a phrase that doesn’t sit well with Burma’s priests and bishops who wonder if he will deign to mention Catholic persecution in the country. But that subject leaves the pope less than engaged if not bored. His references to the persecution of Catholics during his pontificate have tended to be opaque. But he perks up at the chance to defend non-Western “minorities” and “indigenous” peoples.
Besides, talking about his “Rohingya brothers” gives him a break from the difficult work of having to explain away jihad. Here is an opportunity, as Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister pointed out, where he can defend Muslims in the role of the persecuted instead of the persecuting. But the problem, as Magister notes, is that it also puts him in the awkward position of criticizing Buddhism, another religion that he is inclined to cast as impeccably peaceful. Maybe he can find a way to blame the tensions on Catholics, whose numbers in Burma’s dioceses have swelled to the point where they can fit into the back of a mini-van.
It is grimly comic how completely uninterested Pope Francis is in Catholic evangelization. He continues to pass out red hats to bishops from countries with negligible Catholic populations, while scoffing at conservative religious orders that are actually growing. In 2015, he turned a bishop on the tiny island of Tonga into a cardinal for no apparent reason other than the fact that the bishop in question was a climate-change activist and critic of “globalization.” In 2016, for good measure, he turned John Riat of Papua New Guinea, a self-described advocate for a “low-carbon lifestyle,” into a cardinal. And of course Burma’s first cardinal came from Pope Francis too.