Rohingya. Outside of Myanmar, it's a simple word, though not necessarily easy to pronounce. Largely unknown until recently, its utterance now unmistakably evokes persecution, humanitarian tragedy, and what the UN said was "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing" at the hands of government authorities and local militias. But inside the Buddhist-majority country, it's a politically-charged term, the simple mention of which can have devastating consequences.
"Rohingya" refers to the Rakhine (or Arakan) State of Myanmar where they've been living for several generations. Government authorities and the military use instead the word "Bengalis", which clearly suggests that the members of this Muslim community, who were stripped of their Burmese citizenship in 1982, are immigrants. For many Buddhists in Myanmar, the Rohingya are nothing but foreign terrorists.
Pope Francis landed Monday into this linguistic minefield, momentarily steering attention to another religious minority, his own Christian flock, who have also been the victim of persecution in the past in Myanmar.
The pontiff is sure to speak about the plight of religious minorities, with special emphasis on the Muslims forced to flee in droves over the past two months. But what will he call them? "The situation," as The New York Times astutely summed up is "a no-win scenario even for a political operator as deft as he is." By saying the word, he risks putting the lives of the 700,000 Roman Catholics living in Myanmar at risk of retaliation from the military or militias. If he doesn't say it, his moral credibility could suffer.
La Stampa's Vatican correspondent Andrea Tornielli noted ahead of the trip that the Pope went off-script on his visit to Armenia when he used the word "genocide" to describe the events of 1915, which angered the Turkish government. "Still, it seems that the favored approach is to speak in a very clear way in front of the country's leaders about minority rights without using the word ‘Rohingya,'" Tornielli writes.
There is another word making headlines over the weekend for its potential life-or-death implications: "Mushrikin." It means polytheists in Arabic, and it's one that ISIS has been using repeatedly against Sufi Muslims who, according to the Salafi school of thought ISIS gets its inspiration from, aren't even Muslims. The fact that Sufis also venerate saints is enough for the terrorist group to label them as heretics and therefore kill them. Though the organization hasn't claimed responsibility yet for the deaths of at least 305 people in Friday's bombing of a mosque in the North Sinai, everything indicates that it was the work of ISIS and of its determination to purge the Sinai, and the Muslim world, from "infidels".
With the same ISIS eager to turn the plight of the Rohingya into a rallying cry for a "holy war", the crisis in Myanmar is a worrying matter that needs to be addressed urgently and appropriately. It all begins with finding the right words.
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