Pope Francis's Apostolic Visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh

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Tom Reese, senior analyst at Religion News Service, discusses Pope Francis's apostolic visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.


Thomas J. Reese

Senior Analyst, Religion News Service


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR.


As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website at www.CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.


We’re delighted to have Father Thomas Reese with us to talk about Pope Francis’s recent apostolic visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Father Reese is a senior analyst at Religion News Service. He was previously a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter and editor-in-chief at America magazine. From 1985 to 1998 and again from 2006 to 2015, he was a senior fellow at the Woodstock Center at Georgetown, where he wrote a trilogy of books on the organization and politics of the Catholic Church, and worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. In 2014, Father Reese was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and was reappointed to another two-year term in May 2016. He has a master of divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and a doctorate in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. Father Reese entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974.


Father Reese, thank you very much for being with us. We’re all very much looking forward to your insights and analysis on the significance of Pope Francis’s recent apostolic visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, and whether you consider it to have been successful or not.


REESE: Well, thank you very much. It’s really an honor for me to be on this call with the—with you and the other participants. I’m looking forward to hearing what all of you think about the pope’s visit.


A papal visit like this has always got at least two agendas. One is the pastoral visit to the Catholics in the country where the pope visits. He comes to pray with them. He comes to teach them. He comes to inspire them. He comes to console them and give them hope. His presence is always extremely well-received, especially in a country like Myanmar, where no pope has ever gone before, and where they are such a small percentage of the population, something like 1.2 percent of the population. So one aspect of the pope’s visit is this pastoral visit to the Catholics there.


Now, obviously, you’re more interested in the second aspect of—the second agenda item of his visit, and that, it’s political. Now, they would never use that word. The Vatican would never use that word. But, you know, de facto it—these visits always have a political agenda also. In a sense, they would argue that it’s really not political, it’s really the pope is coming preaching the gospel, and the gospel has social effects because the gospel tells us to love our neighbors, it tells us that we have a responsibility to work for justice and peace. But these issues are seen by the rest of the world, of course, as political issues.


Now, I’ll admit that when—before the pope went to Myanmar, I was very skeptical. In fact, I thought it was a bad idea and somebody should have talked him out of it. You have to remember that this visit was originally scheduled before the most recent outbreak in ethnic cleansing that was going on in Myanmar, where the Rohingya were just terribly treated—murder, rape, pillage, burning of villages—by the Myanmar military. And we would expect the pope, as a prophetic leader—as a leader concerned about refugees and the marginalized and the poor, we would expect him to speak out strongly in support of the Rohingya and against the terrible treatment that they have received.


Now, he, in fact, already had done that in August. He had spoken on behalf of the Rohingya, had used their name. He had called for people in the world to come to their aid, et cetera. But prior to his visit to Myanmar, he was told by the Catholic leadership of Myanmar, including the cardinal/archbishop that he should not even use the word “Rohingya” when he came to Myanmar; that this would so upset the military and the radical Buddhist monks, and even, frankly, the majority-Buddhist population, which see the Rohingya as almost enemy aliens present in their country, even though many of these Rohingya have been in Myanmar for generations. Still, they were looked upon as foreigners, as illegal aliens, as they—as people who wanted to turn Myanmar into a Muslim state.


So this kind of situation, where—that the pope was put in was really an absolutely impossible situation. On the one hand, he wanted to be prophetic. He wanted to speak out for the oppressed, for the Rohingya. On the other hand, he—you know, there was fear that if he did do that there would be a backlash against the small Christian population in Myanmar. And we know for a fact that the Christian population in Myanmar is already persecuted. They have a very hard time getting government IDs. Their churches have been burned and destroyed. In fact, they’ve been invaded by the military and shot up. And this kind of thing has been going on against the Christians already, and if the pope came in and basically read the riot act to the Myanmar military and the government, the fear was that there would be a huge backlash. So the pope was confronted with, OK, be prophetic and have the Christians in Myanmar suffer for it, or be silent. And then, you know, what kind of a moral leader are you if you blink, you know, at such an atrocious case of ethnic cleansing as is going on in Myanmar?


Well, what did the pope do? When the pope got there, he—in Myanmar, he never used the word “Rohingya,” but everybody knew what he was talking about. He talked about the violence and the conflict that the country had experienced. He said that the way to peace is by respecting the dignity and human rights of everybody in the country. So, you know, the media traveling with the pope knew what he was saying. The government officials knew what he was saying. And in private meetings, it is said—we never know what really happens in private meetings—but in private meetings, it is said that the pope also continued to argue against the violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar.


So that was the way he tried to, you know, thread the needle, to balance between being prophetic and being diplomatic. In a sense, he became a diplomatic prophet. He got his message across, but he got it across in a way that would not endanger the Christians in Myanmar.


Now, when he got to Bangladesh, there he met with some Rohingya refugees. He insisted on this. He would not go on this trip unless he had an opportunity to meet with Rohingya. And so, in Bangladesh, he was able to meet with the Rohingya refugees. And while he was in Bangladesh, he thanked the Bangladesh government for welcoming the refugees, and he urged the international community to come to the assistance of the Rohingya.


But he went—he went a step further and surprised everybody. He went off-script and referred to the Rohingya by name, and spoke of the terrible suffering that they had endured, and said that God is present today in the Rohingya. So he—you know, he did finally use the word “Rohingya,” but he did it in Bangladesh, not in Myanmar.


On the plane home to Rome, he was asked by the reporters what’s the—what’s going on here. And he basically argued that and responded by saying that, you know, if he had, you know, been confrontational with the people in—with the government and the military in Myanmar, they simply would not have listened. You know, doors would have been closed. It would not have accomplished anything. His goal was to use language that would communicate rather than to use language that would just create more hostility.


Now, that’s one of those judgment calls people have to make. Was he right? Was he wrong? You know, that’s everybody’s decision to make on their own.


I guess the final thing I would say is, you know, I’m also a journalist. I write for Religion News Service. Now, if someone—if the Rohingya activists had come to me and said, we want you to plan a media strategy which will give the maximum amount of attention to the Rohingya during the pope’s visit to Myanmar and to Bangladesh, I could not have written a better plan than what the Vatican did. And I’m not sure it was well-planned; I think it just happened. You know, because, you know, going up to the meeting—going—you know, prior to the visit, all the stories were about, will he use the word “Rohingya”? And every time journalists wrote that story, of course, they had to explain who the Rohingya were and what this issue is all about. And then, when he gets to Myanmar and doesn’t use the word “Rohingya,” the headlines are all “pope doesn’t say ‘Rohingya.’” And again they have to explain to the readers, you know, who are these people, why is this important, what’s been going on. Then he gets to Bangladesh and he uses the word “Rohingya.” Once again, the stories, all the stories about the pope’s visit are about the Rohingya. It got the issue of the Rohingya in front of the media and in front of the world in a way that you could not have planned out better if you had actually been planning it out. And then, finally, on the plane once again the question was about the Rohingya, and the stories were again explaining what the pope had to say. So I would—I would argue that, by acting the way he did, the pope actually got the message out about the Rohingya better than if he had actually said—used the word “Rohingya” when he was in Myanmar.


Anyway, that’s just a quick summary of the pope’s visit. I think he was faced with an absolutely impossible situation, which he did—which he, I think, handled extremely well. So I give him the award for being the diplomatic prophet of the year.


FASKIANOS: Tom, thank you very much for that. Let’s open it up now to the group for questions, commentary, insights, et cetera. Thank you.


OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.


OPERATOR: First question comes from Adem Carroll with Burma Task Force USA.


CARROLL: Thank you so much for your presentation.


Our NGO is a Muslim-American program that works to raise awareness of the Rohingya, primarily, part of the larger initiative called Justice for All. And so we’ve been doing that for about five years. And because we’re faith-based, you know, we’re especially interested in the pope’s visit. And, of course, at the time, we were a bit anxious and also critical. But you’ve depicted the balance between prophetic and diplomatic very well. And of course, his statement that the presence of God today is also called Rohingya is profound and moving.


So our—once concern. We see that some of the Burmese are perceiving his statements as, you know, saying one thing in Bangladesh and another in Myanmar. I don’t know how one gets around that sort of misperception. But the other thing is, we’re concerned about some of the Myanmar or Burmese Catholic leadership, that are quoted in a number of articles saying rather wrong things about the Rohingya. It’s not just their fear of backlash, but they perceive—they also perceive the Rohingya as illegitimate, or threats, or what have you. And so, you know, going forward, we’re anxious about how the Myanmar clergy will be a force for reconciliation or not. And so I wondered if you might want to comment on any of that.


REESE: Thank you. That’s a good question. I think that one thing we have to recognize about the Catholic Church is we have a lot of voices in the Catholic Church. Everybody sees the Catholic Church as very hierarchical. The pope says something and we all salute and say the—repeat the same words. That may have been true in the past, but it certainly is no longer true in the Catholic Church. And so in a country like Myanmar, you’re going to have various Catholic voices saying various things. It’s quite clear where the pope is. And I think it’s clear where the cardinal is. I mean, the Cardinal himself has used the word “Rohingya”. Even though he told the pope not to use it, he has used it in the past, and has spoken out.


But, you know, there will always be, you know, some Catholics that are on the wrong—that aren’t on message, that are saying the wrong thing. And that’s a tragedy. That’s the sinful nature of the church. That’s who we are. And I think we have to just, you know, continue to just—the good voices have to continue to speak out, and to correct any misimpressions about where the Catholic Church stands.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Laura Alexander with University of Nebraska, Omaha.


ALEXANDER: Hi. This is just a question really kind of about the current standing of the situation of the Rohingya and the kind of dialogue over what’s sort of going to happen now. I just wondered, being sort of closer to the situation – you know, I sort of try to keep up with the news and try to keep up with what’s going on. And the last that I had heard about the actual situation of Rohingya refugees was that there was maybe some possible agreement that some people were going to be allowed to come back to Myanmar. But the concern was that really the situation hasn’t changed. So that folks could potentially be coming out of, you know, kind of a horrific refugee situation, where they don’t have anywhere to live, but going back to somewhere where essentially they have nowhere to live as well, and they’re still being persecuted in the way that they have been persecuted for a long time, but certainly in the last few months.


I just wondered if you could comment on the situation, just what is now going on with the sort of diplomatic negotiations around the situation of the Rohingya. And then something—you know, if you have some insight into how folks who are working on the ground or kind of at the—at the level of church bodies, and particularly the Catholic Church taking a stand on what’s going on—where you see that sort of negotiation going. Thanks.


REESE: Sure. Thank you, Laura.


I’m sure there are other people on this call who are much more knowledgeable than I am about the current situation. But I think you described it fairly well. There are these negotiations going on between the Myanmar government and the Bangladesh government. But the actual Rohingya don’t seem to be included in these negotiations. And there’s talk about letting some of them back. I mean, the Myanmar government says: Well, if they have legitimate government IDs, et cetera. Well, the government wasn’t giving them IDs. I mean, this is catch-22.


So, you know, I am afraid that, you know, maybe a couple thousand would be allowed back in as a token, you know, to say we’ve let them back in. And then, of course, the question is where. Are they going to be put in camps? Or are they going to be able to return to their villages? And who’s going to—you know, who’s going to help them rebuild these villages that have been burnt down? I mean, we know that the Myanmar military went in and harvested their rice and took it from their fields, you know, after they chased them out. You know, so they don’t even—they won’t even have their crop for this year.


So I—you know, I hate to be a pessimist, but I’m not too optimistic about this working out very well for the Rohingya. I think it’s extremely important that the international community not sit on its hands, but be aggressive in promoting the rights of the Rohingya, but also getting there with aid and facilities to take care of this huge, huge refugee—we can’t even call them refugee camps. I mean, they’re not like the refugee camps you see. They’re just—it’s just everybody everywhere. So it’s just, I think, still a very tragic situation.


Now, with regards to the Catholic Church, certainly the Catholic Church in Bangladesh has been very, very aggressive, for its size, in trying to help the Rohingya refugees with aid. Caritas International, various charitable works of the Catholic Church, have been trying to do all they can for the Rohingya refugees. But, you know, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the huge needs that these people have. I mean, we’ve—you know, victims of rape and abuse, and people having seen their—members of their families just murdered in front of them, let alone, you know, what are they going to eat? Where are they going to get clean water? Where are they going to have sanitary facilities, and all of these things that are necessary for the minimum humane treatment of refugees. All of this needs to be done, and needs to be done quickly.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from John Pawlikowski with Catholic Theological Union.


PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, thanks so much, Tom, for your presentation. I have to say, I’m glad that you’ve come around a bit, because I was somewhat disturbed by your original column on this, sort of suggesting that the pope shouldn’t go because he might endanger the local population—local Catholic population. As one who has studied the whole history of the church’s involvement during the Nazi era, you know, I’ve come to a strong conclusion that in situations of genocide, one, the church as an institution and church leaders—but I would say this applies to any religious institution—has to be willing to make public pronouncements on the human rights issue very, very central. You cannot just, in those movements and those times, move to kind of a self-preservation attitude.


So whether or not the pope struck the right balance is—you know, that can be debated. But I do think he certainly has tried. And the real issue for me, though, is what is the follow up? And some of these issues have already been put on the table. Frankly, the Catholic Church, as an institution, in recent years—and I know this from the—because my order, the Servites, has both the presence of women religious and priests in Burma. And in fact, we even have a Burmese priest in our province who is very close to the scene. And the previous bishop, previous to Cardinal Bo, generally was perceived as very much tied into the military, and even not very supportive of the priests, and so on.


So I think what happens locally at the Catholic Church, and the kind of education is—and the kind of help is also crucial. And in a sense, whether the pope was successful or not, clearly he brought the issue to public attention in a way that almost no one else could. But whether it was successful in the end will depend on the follow up, I think. So I would hope that the church—that we continue to follow this, and that you as a journalist continue to follow it, to see what kind of efforts the Catholic Church is making as a follow up to this. So, thanks again for your presentation.


REESE: Sure. Thank you, John. I agree with you totally. I mean, this is an issue that we can’t let slide back into oblivion. It’s one that is—you know, has to be constantly, you know, brought to the attention of the public and the international community. Just on, you know what he should have said in Myanmar, and all that, I guess where I come out is, you know, it’s one thing to be prophetic and suffer yourself the consequences for your being a prophet. I think we are called as Christians to do that. On the other hand, to prophetic and somebody else suffers for what you say, that gets me a little nervous. And I just—I don’t know what to do that in that circumstances. I agree with you. It’s a tough one. And I just—I just don’t know. Thank God I’m not pope and don’t have to make those kinds of decisions.


PAWLIKOWSKI: (Laughs.) And you probably won’t have to.


REESE: (Laughs.) No.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question or comment.


OPERATOR: Next question comes from Lois Farag with Luther Seminary.


FARAG: Hi. Thank you so much for your presentation.


During your presentation you mentioned that the pope went to Myanmar for pastoral—as a pastoral visit, and you also mentioned that the Catholics there are also suffering like the Rohingya. And that is why the pope was warned: Don’t utter the word “Rohingya,” that there will be a backlash. But during the talk, you didn’t mention the repercussions of the visit of the pope on the Catholic community. What was the result? Did the government treat them better? Was there a backlash from the government against the Catholics? You mentioned they’ve been in an equally precarious situation, like the Rohingya. So how did this pastoral visit help the main, you know, Catholic community that the pope supposedly had visited?


REESE: Yes, good. Thank you for that question. I think that, you know, as part of the pastoral visit, he also reached out to other faith groups in Myanmar. You know, the other major Christian group, of course, is the Baptists. And they have also suffered discrimination and persecution. And—but the pope also reached out to the Buddhist community, to the Buddhist monks, and had some interreligious dialogue and meetings to talk and communicate and try and improve relationships between the Christians and the Buddhists in Myanmar. I think that the—you know, as far as I’ve seen, during the visit I think the Christians were left alone. In fact, they were able to come from all over the country to greet the pope.


And so far I don’t know of any big reprisals or attacks on them since the pope’s visit. I mean, one of the advantages of the pope’s coming to a country—and we saw John Paul II do this all the time in his many visits—is that once the world’s attention is on a country and how it’s dealing with the Christians in that country, the government is more inclined to back off and leave them alone. And so there is the hope that that will be an additional effect of his visit, especially because of the diplomatic way in which he dealt with the issues of their concern. But, again, time will tell.


At our commission—at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, we did two major studies last summer on the situation in Burma, which is what the State Department still calls Myanmar. And one was on the situation of the Rohingya, and one was on what was called the hidden persecution of Christians in Burma. If you’re interested in more information on that, those are available at our website, USCIRF.gov. It is really very detailed analysis of the treatment of the Rohingya, and of the Christians in Burma.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


FARAG: Thank you.


REESE: I’m sorry, if—I should have said this at the very beginning. Even though I’m a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, anything I say in this—on this phone call does not necessarily represent the views of the commission. Sorry. I’m supposed to say that every time I talk.


FASKIANOS: No problem. Duly noted.


Let’s go onto the next question.


OPERATOR: Next question comes from Thomas Walsh with Universal Peace Federation.


WALSH: Yeah. Thank you for this very good report and fine discussion, as usual. I wanted to just address the issue of the relationship between religion and the nation-state. And, you know, we have—I’m thinking of Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar, that I guess there’s some sense in which there’s an attempt to create a nation-state that has—is a Buddhist culture, a Buddhist civilization, or a Buddhist state of some kind. I mean, that’s a generalization there.


And I’m just wondering if—to what extent the Buddhist community both globally and regionally in Southeast Asia is concerned about certain threats to its integrity and its viability as having, let’s say, some places in the world where Buddhism is—let’s say you get a nation-state that is able to have this identity as a Buddhist culture. I mean, we’ve seen—you know, there’s examples in Tibet, where Buddhism has been certainly threatened by the Chinese government. So just interested if you’d reflect a little bit on that. And once again, thanks for this great discussion.


REESE: Thank you, Thomas.


I, of course, can’t speak for Buddhists. But clearly this is a concern. We note around the world that there is this growing effort by what I—what you could call religious nationalists to identify their nation with their religion. And we see that with Buddhists in the countries you’ve mentioned, but also with, you know, Hindu nationalists in India and in some Muslim countries also, where, you know, you have to be of a certain religion in order to be a citizen. And this is clearly true in Myanmar, where—and it wasn’t at the—you know, at the—right after the colonial period. In fact, there was attempts to have a secular democracy where everyone could practice their faith.


But in Myanmar, you know, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve lived there for generations. I mean, Catholics have been in that part of the world for 500 years, long before the colonial period. So this is—you know, and then to say that they cannot—are not real citizens because they’re not Buddhist is just contrary to what we would see as citizenship. This is—this is one of the key issues in terms of religious freedom because, you know, religious freedom isn’t just about tolerance. It’s about having everybody have the rights of—equal rights of citizens, and not be discriminated against simply because you are of one religion or another.


WALSH: Tom, thank you.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next—thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Next question comes from Steve Gutow with New York University.


GUTOW: Hi, Thomas. This is Steve. And I also appreciated John Pawlikowski coming onto the call. I’m not sure where he stood on what I’m about to say, but I know where I stand.


I do serve, but I’m not speaking for them, on a vast taskforce that serves a vast array of Jewish organizations—I’m a rabbi—that are working on helping Rohingya and opposing the policies of the Buddhist military there. But I don’t agree with your—I mean, you don’t even have to respond to this. We just have a very different feeling about the results of the pope’s visit. He may have helped—you know, I don’t know whether he did or not, I doubt it just because he came away and said anything he felt like. But in all honesty, I don’t think he helped at all with the Rohingya.


I think it was—I mean, look, I live in one world and, you know, other people live in a different world. But in my world, people were just sick about the pope’s not saying anything. And I think there was a real calling, which apparently I didn’t read this, you had said in a column according to John, that perhaps the pope shouldn’t have gone. And I would—I would say that I don’t—just from my listening. Just relatively widespread, people were very disappointed. And I hope—I hope he’ll get that message. I hope he did some good that we don’t know about, since no one did what he did for the Christian population.


I don’t know what he did or could have done, because when he walked away from there it seemed to the world very much—like, very much like it had been said before for—you know, the Vatican’s response to Germany in the Holocaust time, that he couldn’t say anything and how could he not say anything? I heard people last night say that. So I just want to say—you don’t have to answer it; no reason to answer because you said your piece pretty well—I think it was a mistake to go, I think he could have opted out somehow, if he was going to go there and say nothing.


REESE: Thanks. You know, I think that is a very legitimate position. And you may be right. And I think that history will tell. I would—I would just say a couple of quick things. One, frankly, I’m happy that he didn’t make matters worse. I mean, you know, I was afraid that going on this trip he could have made matters much worse by the visit. And at a minimum, you know, he got in and out without making matters worse. The second thing I would say is we have—we have to remember, the pope’s not a miracle worker. You know, he—you know, he cannot change reality. And you know, he can give a little push, he can give a little shove, he can say a few words. But ultimately, you know, the people with guns are the Myanmar military. And they’re calling the shots. And that’s the reality. And to think that the pope could somehow change that reality, I think, is giving the pope a lot more power than he actually has.


GUTOW: I don’t think he—I agree with you. I don’t think he can change reality. I just don’t think he should have gone, because I think when he went and couldn’t say anything—which, you know, he couldn’t—he hurt the situation of people’s perceptions of the Rohingya. I don’t think people don’t know about the Rohingya. I think it’s pretty—you know, I’ve known about them for years, so I’m not—this is not news. But to go and say nothing, I think, was a mistake. So not going would have been in my view, right or wrong, a far better thing to do, based on his position. I never thought he was going to hurt anything. I just think he would have helped things more if he just had not gone.


REESE: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a legitimate position. I would argue, though, that there’s a lot of Catholics who never knew what—never knew the word “Rohingya.” But because they’re interested in stories about the pope, they now know about the Rohingya.


GUTOW: Hope they’re read—hope they’re read for a few days. (Laughter.)


FASKIANOS: Next question or comment.


OPERATOR: Next question comes from Vineet Sharma with Hindu American Foundation.


SHARMA: Yeah, thank you, Mr. Reese. It’s a great discussion. And, you know, I’m a physician. And one of the things I was taught very early by a senior attending was, don’t just do something, stand there. (Laughter.) And, you know, the point was, do no harm. And in that—and in that sense, the pope’s visit, you know, I would agree with your initial analysis that the risk of harm was always great. The pope’s visit was successful in threading the needle, and he minimized any harm. He may have helped the Catholic community, potentially.


But I would like to bring up just a larger issue that, you know, all these conflicts are complex. This is certainly a religious conflict with Buddhist and Muslims on one side. But it is ethnic. It’s linguistic. There’s national identities involved—Bengali, Arakan. And when a religious leader—a high-profile visitation actually elevates the religious identity of the conflicting parties, and diminishes the national identity. And frankly, in the long term, that can make resolution more difficult. And, you know, there’s been conflicts all over which are often simplified in the media narratives of the West as simple religious conflicts. But they’re always more complex. And the solution is always in elevating that, you know, the people in Myanmar can live together in peace, and make religion a personal issue. And I just was wondering if you could comment on that, given your initial article and views on this visit.


REESE: Yeah, I think I agree with you. Clearly what we need, what—you know, what the optimal result is that people can choose their own religion, they can believe what they want, they can practice their faith, and they can do that in freedom as citizens of a country. But you’re also—you know, your also accurate in saying that a lot of times this is mixed with ethnic and tribal issues, where one ethnic group or one tribal group is of one religion and the other is of another. And this—and then religion is just pouring gasoline on the flames of a conflict that is already present there. We’re seeing that in Nigeria currently. So, yeah, I guess I agree with much of what you said.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Next question comes from David Rogers with Catholic Relief Services.


ROGERS: Hello. Thank you, Father Reese, for your presentation. I really appreciated it, and your sense of, you know, having been open to having your own mind changed. My whole feeling is that there’s serendipity in the fact that originally the pope was intending to go to India and Bangladesh, and as it turned out when the government of India did not respond with an invitation, he ended up going to Myanmar.


And in visiting Myanmar, I think the one person we kind of left out of this conversation, Aung San Suu Kyi, is one of the biggest winners in this visit, because of the way he spoke. She was under tremendous pressure. And despite being the biggest hope for change in Myanmar, she had been—people have been chipping away at her, with many who are quite ignorant of the situation. And I think that his relationship with her, the presentation he made with her in front of civic leaders on the first day, was a fantastic presentation. I think it’s still available on video. And I just don’t think we can say he didn’t say anything when he was there, as people have said. You know, the pope said quite a bit. And people have to listen to what he said to appreciate the impact of his visit.


And like you say, it will take time before we know the impact. But I’m sure that it will be good. And I know the church has been strengthened. Cardinal Bo’s position has been strengthened. He’s a remarkable man. And he will continue to lead in that country all religions, because there are very few other religions who are speaking out. Thank you.


REESE: Sure.


FASKIANOS: Go ahead.


REESE: And thank you, David. She’s in a particular difficult position. You know, the—according to the constitution, if there’s a crisis, the military can throw her out and take over again. They control, what is it, something like a third of the—of the national legislature. I mean, they control all the security services, the military, the border guard, the police. She is in a very difficult position. And Cardinal Bo and others have defended her. I mean, there’s simply—I mean, there’s no alternative. She’s it. We have no alternative.


And so, you know, even though I would criticize her for—you know, frankly, you know, if she had just remained silent, I would have understood it. But she went beyond that. I mean, she just denied that ethnic cleansing was going on. And I just—I think that was a bridge too far. But, I mean, she knew—I mean, frankly, if she had come out in support of the Rohingya and attacked the military, she would have been gone. And the—and the population of Burma would have—would have sided with the military, you know? So I—she’s in a difficult position. And, again, I’m glad I don’t have her job.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Syed Sayeed with Columbia University.


SAYEED: Hello. Thank you very much.


As always, I want to first, you know, express my appreciation to the Council on Foreign Relations to take this particular subject. Internationally, it’s probably not as, you know, I mean, prominent as someone might have, you know, been inclined to consider. But by having a person from the Catholic leadership speaking on the subject of Myanmar, you know, Muslims, the Rohingya, I think is a contribution that the CFR is making toward—you know, in this new—not new. I mean, it’s a recent development as to role of religion in politics.


And the fact that we have interfaith, you know, groups from many different areas taking this matter, speaking and everything and, you know, taking positions, shows that both within the U.S. and around the world there is going to be a sort of emphasis on having interfaith positions not just on issues of oppression and, you know, ethnic cleansing and all of that, but on other matters, like issues that are happening here within the United States. And I think as the speaker pointed out, the visit of the pope, I personally look at it as something that has been beneficial, not just for the Rohingya but for the interfaith dialogue around it.


So in the broadest context, both the visit and this particular presentation, from the platform of CFR, is a good indication of, you know, future developments. And we hope that it will bring about positive results. Thank you.




REESE: Thank you. Thank you very much. I couldn’t agree with you more. And I pray and hope for the day when religion is not part of the problem, but rather being part of the solution. When people of different faiths and different religions can work together to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, take care of refugees and the sick. That’s what we should be doing. And we should be doing it arm in arm with our brothers and sisters, no matter what religion they are.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Peg Chamberlin. Ms. Chamberlin, your line is live.


CHAMBERLIN: Tom, thank you very much. I’m wondering whether you—where you find the strongest support for the work that you do around combating religious nationalism with religious freedom. I think this is a really important example. Where is it being written up? Where is it being studied? How do we find ways to apply it to the work that we’re doing?


REESE: Thank you for that question. I think that, you know, a lot of the reports that we have done here at USCIRF and that are available at—on our website can be very helpful in that. I think, you know, it also helps that when we point out to, you know, a country like Saudi Arabia—where no one is allowed to worship unless they are of the approved Muslim faith of that country—to point out to them that, yeah, well, look at what’s happening to your Muslim brothers and sisters in Myanmar. And you know, this—the question of religious liberty affects everybody.


You know, in countries where one faith may have the majority and think that they can therefore impose their will on others, all they have to do is look elsewhere in the world and they find out, well, wait a minute, I’m a minority in this place. Maybe—and, you know, maybe I ought to support religious freedom, because it’s going to have an impact on the people there. All—you know, practically every faith is somewhere an oppressor and somewhere a victim. And we have to recognize that, you know, there’s no compulsion in religion, and that we—that God calls us to follow our conscience. And to impose religious views on others, for either nationalistic reasons or other reasons, is just a violation of God, and a violation of, you know, religious belief.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Joe Carson with Affiliation of Christian Engineers.


CARSON: Good afternoon. I’m a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And it has convened a number of engineering and scientific societies into a scientific—science and human rights coalition. And obviously one human right is freedom of religion. I’d also like to bring participant attention to the fact that the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has recently released its first-ever statement of scientific freedom and responsibility, which certainly have some human rights religious freedom implications. So I wanted to bring those things to your attention because, Father Reese, you were talking about trying to get the international community to weigh in. And certainly these engineering and scientific societies are increasingly global. So they could be in this way—if activated, or asked to be activated, could possibly be a constructive influence in the situation. Thank you.


REESE: Thank you very much for that. And as you know, when it comes to climate change and the environmental movement, we are—we’re all beginning to recognize the importance of religious believers being on board with scientists on that effort to protect the planet, to protect God’s creation. And if we could stop fighting each other and hold hands and protect Mother Earth, I think the world would be a much better place.


FASKIANOS: We’re going to try to squeeze in one last question. And I’m sorry we can’t get to them all.


OPERATOR: The last question come from Minhaj Hassan with Islamic Relief USA.


HASSAN: Hello, Father Reese. Thank you again for your presentation.


My question was, there had been some news, I guess, that Bangladesh wasn’t being as welcoming toward the refugee population, and there was some hesitation amongst the governing leaders there on how far to go with that. Did the pope get any sense of that during his visit? And secondly, I know this is a bit off topic, but does he have any opinion on the Republican-backed tax legislation that was recently passed?


REESE: (Laughs.) First, the—first, the easy one, the Republican legislation. As a commissioner, we do not take positions on any domestic issues. I’ve just written a column myself on those tax plans. The pope would not take positions on that. If you want to know what I think, just take a look at ReligionNews.com, and you can read my column.




REESE: The other part of—the other part of your question, I’m sorry, was?


HASSAN: Bangladesh, whether they were being welcoming—


REESE: Oh, Bangladesh, yes. Yes, yes, yes.




REESE: I mean, clearly, Bangladesh has been overwhelmed by all of these refugees. I mean, look at the United States. We’re closing our borders, and we’re the richest country in the world, and we’re taking—we just cut half the number of refugees that we will accept. This is—you know, this is—this is just totally unacceptable. But, you know, Bangladesh is getting almost 600,000 refugees. They’re totally overwhelmed. You know, and they don’t—frankly, they don’t know how to deal with this. And, you know, it’s overwhelming any resources that they have there. I mean, it’s a poor country. And it’s overwhelming the resources they have for their own people.


So there is—there obviously is some negative pushback. I mean, look at Europe. You know, the pushback from one of the richest areas of the world to the refugees that are coming from the Middle East. So this is not surprising. And this is—and, you know, even in some of the places that they’re talking about setting up refugee camps, I mean, you know, on an island that has potential for flooding and things like that. This is—this is all problematic. And the only solution to this is for the international community to come in with robust resources to help Bangladesh in dealing with this crisis.


HASSAN: And just a clarification, you said 1.2 percent of Myanmar’s population is Christian, is Catholic?


REESE: Is Catholic. Is Catholic.


HASSAN: Catholic, OK. Thank you.


REESE: Yeah.


FASKIANOS: Well, with that, we need to end this call. I’m sorry that we couldn’t get to all the questions. But, Father Reese, thank you so much, again, for sharing your insights with us today, and for your analysis that you do at the Religion News Service, and your service on USCIRF. So we appreciate all of that. Thanks to all of you for your questions and comments today. You can follow Father Reese on Twitter at @ThomasReeseSJ. And, again, find his column at ReligionNewsService.com. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources.


So thank you all, again. Thank you, Father Reese. And we look forward to your continued participation.


REESE: Thank you.