Naypyitaw, Myanmar:?Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has constantly used his pulpit to champion the downtrodden and draw attention to the misery of the powerless and the persecuted.
He risked the fury of Turkey by describing the mass killings of Armenians in World War I as a genocide. He apologised for the silence of church leaders in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. And three months ago, he decried "the persecution of our Rohingya brothers," referring to the Muslim minority that has suffered a systematic campaign of murder, rape and arson by Myanmar's military.
On Tuesday, Francis had a singular opportunity to advocate for the Rohingya as he stood next to Myanmar's de facto leader and in front of a hall full of military officials, prelates and diplomats in this capital.
But in a much anticipated speech, Francis studiously avoided using the name of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya minority or directly addressing their situation, after church leaders advised him that doing so would only aggravate the situation and put the country's tiny Catholic population at risk.
"The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity," the pope said as he stood next to Myanmar's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose own reputation has suffered for failing to speak out against the killings.
Francis said that respect for rule of law and the democratic order "enables each individual and every group - none excluded - to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good."
"Rohingya" is a highly polarised term in Myanmar, and the pope's own advisers had warned him that using it during his visit could antagonise the military, embolden hard-line Buddhists and even make the situation worse for the Rohingya.
But critics worried that Francis' caution in public, while perhaps prudent, risked diminishing his reputation as the world's megaphone against injustice.
"I'm disappointed," said Lynn Kuok, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution's Centre?for East Asia Policy Studies, who had hoped the pope would acknowledge the Rohingya and their plight. Instead she called his speech "tepid" and added: "When even the leader of the Catholic Church doesn't speak out, it really shows the desperate situation they are in."
More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh since August, when the military began a crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine state, in response to Rohingya militants' attacks on security posts.
Myanmar has stripped the Rohingya of citizenship and does not consider them to be a distinct ethnic group. Instead, most of the majority-Buddhist population regards them as interlopers from Bangladesh.
Because of this, the term Rohingya is essentially taboo.
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo and others in the church had urged the pope not to use it during his trip, for fear that any appearance of taking the side of the Muslim minority could provoke a violent backlash against Catholics in the country, who number about 700,000.
"I have come, above all, to pray with the nation's small but fervent Catholic community," Francis said Tuesday. "To confirm them in their faith, and to encourage them in their efforts to contribute to the good of the nation."
The Rohingya crisis has already done reputational damage to Suu Kyi, who was stripped of her Freedom of Oxford award for failing to denounce the military's crackdown.
Speaking immediately before Francis, Suu Kyi acknowledged that "the situation in the Rakhine has most strongly captured the attention of the world." She said that in the face of a breakdown of trust "between different communities in Rakhine," she especially valued the support of friends who wished for the government's success.
"It is the aim of our government to bring out the beauty of our diversity and to make it our strength, by protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all," she said.
But Suu Kyi, who won a landslide election in 2015, is also in an excruciatingly tight political spot. She has no authority over the military, which ruled the country outright for decades. Her defenders, including Bo and others in the church, argue that she is powerless to stop the campaign against the Rohingya, and that for her to speak out against it would only weaken her, strengthen the military and jeopardize the country's fragile democratic gains. She conferred privately with the pope before their public speeches.
But analysts here said the more important meeting for Francis came on Monday evening, when he met with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who has led the campaign against the Rohingya and essentially sidelined Suu Kyi. The crackdown is popular in Myanmar and has helped coalesce support behind the general, who is believed to have designs on the presidency.
In a Facebook post after Monday's meeting, the general denied that religious prejudice existed in Myanmar. "His speech is always the same," said Mariano Soe Naing, a spokesman for the Myanmar Catholic bishops conference.
For that very reason, many humanitarian groups had hoped Francis would say something very different. Instead, he spoke broadly about religious differences as a source of enrichment, tolerance and nation-building.
New York Times