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Pope Francis calls for decisive measures over Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar

Pope Francis shakes hands with President Abdul Hamid upon his arrival at the presidential palace in Dhaka, Bangladesh PICTURE: Andrew Medichini/AP
By Nicole Winfield

Pope Francis has demanded that the international community take "decisive measures" to resolve the causes of the mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, breaking his recent silence over what the United Nations has declared to be a textbook case of "ethnic cleansing".

Arriving in Bangladesh from Myanmar, he said it also was "imperative" for world governments to immediately provide assistance to help the Bangladeshi government cope with Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades.

In a speech in front of Bangladesh president Abdul Hamid, government officials and ambassadors from around the world, Francis praised Bangladesh's sacrifice and generosity in welcoming in so many refugees "before the eyes of the whole world".

He did not identify the Rohingya by name, ethnicity or faith, referring only to "refugees from Rakhine state" but his words were sharp.

"None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps," he said.

"It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis, not only by working to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people, but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs."

Francis, a tireless and fearless advocate for refugees, outcasts and society's most marginal, had drawn criticism from human rights organisations and Rohingya themselves for having failed to speak out publicly about their plight while he was in Myanmar.

He had remained silent out of diplomatic deference to his hosts, who consider the Rohingya as having illegally migrated from Bangladesh and do not recognise them as one of Myanmar's ethnic groups.

More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled Burma and poured into Bangladesh refugee camps over the last few months amid a scorched earth campaign by the Burmese military.

The Vatican defended the Pope's silence, saying he wanted to "build bridges" with the predominantly Buddhist nation, which only recently established diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Spokesman Greg Burke said Francis took seriously the advice given to him by the local Catholic Church, which urged him to toe a cautious line and not refer to the Rohingya by name.

Rohingya have faced persecution and discrimination in Myanmar for decades and are denied citizenship, even though many families have lived there for generations. The situation grew worse in August when the army began what it called clearance operations in Rakhine state following attacks on security positions by a group of Rohingya militants.

Rohingya living in camps in Bangladesh have described indiscriminate attacks by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist mobs, including killings, rapes and the torching of entire villages.

Bangladesh President Hamid accused Myanmar's military of having committed "ruthless atrocities" against the Muslims and, in his speech to Pope Francis, demanded international help to return them safely to Myanmar.

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