On Dec. 1, near the end of his visit to the Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh, Pope Francis met with 16 Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was an emotional moment, as Pope Francis held each refugee’s hands while they spoke.
“I was crying, but tried to hide it,” the pope told reporters during his flight back to Rome. “They were crying, too.”
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine State. However, the Myanmar government does not acknowledge the Rohingya and views them as illegal immigrants. Since August, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, according to Amnesty International, and an unknown number have been killed.
In 1982, Myanmar passed a law allowing authorities to deny the Rohingya citizenship rights. Some have also been removed from official records, erasing their existence. “There is no race termed Rohingya in Myanmar,” Amnesty International quoted the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Army.
The plight of the Rohingya is one of the latest crises involving a minority group forced to flee or suffer humiliation and even torture and death. This situation is one reason the United Nations General Assembly ratified its Declaration for Refugees and Migrants on Sept. 19, 2016. The declaration sought to develop a global compact on migration by 2018.
One day after Pope Francis visited with Rohingya refugees, the Trump administration announced that the U.S. government would withdraw from the UN’s process to develop the global compact. In a statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “… we simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders.”
The decision to pull out of the global compact was criticized by the U.S. bishops. While acknowledging a nation’s right to regulate migration, Bishop Joe E. Vasquez, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration said that “it is the obligation of nations to assure human rights for all migrants and special protections for vulnerable migrants, such as refugees, forced migrants, victims of human trafficking, and women and children at risk.”
“With a growing global concern about protracted, forced migration situations, the UN process provides an opportunity for the United States to help build international cooperation that respects such rights and protections on behalf of those seeking safety and security for their families,” added Archbishop Timothy Broglio, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace.
Abandoning the UN global compact is the latest move by the Trump administration to isolate the United States from global initiatives aimed at protecting people and the planet. It contradicts the vision of Pope Francis, who promotes a “culture of encounter.”
“Faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others,” Pope Francis said in May 2013. “With our faith, we must create a ‘culture of encounter,’ a culture of friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters, in which we can also speak with those who think differently, as well as those who hold other beliefs, who do not have the same faith. They all have something in common with us: they are images of God, they are children of God.”
As we journey through Advent and approach the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, let’s pray for a change of heart and an openness to better understand the world around us. A culture of encounter is the way to peace, not a culture of isolation.