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On the eve of his return to Rome, Pope Francis on Friday used the word “Rohingya,” coming face-to-face with some of the persecuted Muslims whose plight had cast a long shadow over his visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Critics had been asking why a pontiff who so often condemned injustice against the downtrodden had stayed silent earlier in the week, when he made his first visit to Myanmar, a country in which Rohingya Muslims have been raped, killed or driven into exile in Bangladesh by a brutal military campaign of repression.

In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on Friday, the pope listened to the stories, and held the hands, one by one, of 16 survivors of the persecution — 12 men, two women and two young girls — vowing: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

On a stage following a large interfaith gathering for peace, the pope patted men’s shoulders and pressed the forehead of a girl whose parents and brothers had been killed. He bent low to kiss a small child on the head. The enormity of their tragedy seemed to weigh on him.

“In the name of everyone, of those who have persecuted you, of those who have done you harm, above all for the indifference of the world, I ask forgiveness. Forgiveness,” the pope said in emotional and apparently unscripted remarks, as the survivors stood around him. He did not address his own recent silence.

To the large audience of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and others, he stressed that the Rohingya, as all of humanity, were created in the image of God and he vowed to continue helping them “so that their rights become recognized.”

The Rohingya are stateless Muslims from western Myanmar who, according to the United Nations, the United States and many human rights groups, have been the targets of ethnic cleansing. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh, where they live in desperate, sprawling refugee camps in areas like Cox’s Bazar, where the group that met the pope had earlier sought shelter. Read More …