The following piece was submitted by guest writer Sandra Gilman. All ULC Ministers are invited to contribute their own sermons for consideration/publication. To submit a sermon, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pope Francis continued his South Asian trip by meeting with 16 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. And unlike his visit to Myanmar, this time Francis did refer to the Rohingya by name. During the meeting, he offered the following prayer: “In the name of all who have persecuted you and persecute you, that have done you harm, above all, the world’s indifference, I ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness.”
Although Pope Francis’ trip to the region certainly raised awareness of the humanitarian catastrophe of the Rohingya, it seems as if Francis is just offering a balm for the pain. There are still huge questions about the future of the Rohingya. A repatriation agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar was reached last month, but there are questions about how the agreement can work in practice if the violence in the Rakhine State continues. The military leaders in Myanmar won’t even admit to the violence, despite overwhelming evidence against them.
It’s a frightening situation for the Rohingya. Will they be forced into camps? Will they be able to get citizenship without papers that they have been denied for decades?
All Talk, No Action
With all this uncertainty, all Pope Francis could offer was to ask for forgiveness? When those committing the violence won’t admit that they’re in the wrong, what good is forgiveness for the Rohingya? To be frank, it’s fairly worthless. At the same time, though, the pope’s words at least constitute support for the persecuted. That’s more than others have bothered to do.
PBS issued a report in November on what is currently being done to help the Rohingya. (hint: it’s not much). Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto head of state, formed the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Development of Rakhine State (UEHRD). Sounds impressive, right? Well in the two months that UEHRD has been in existence, it has sent just 60 people to work in the affected area to provide assistance and do surveys. That’s chump change compared to the number of Rohingya who have been displaced, attacked, and killed.
Further, Aung San Suu Kyi lacks any real authority over the military, the entity most responsible for the ongoing violence in the Rakhine. She also rejected a fact-finding mission last year by the U.N. Human Rights Council. Myanmar embassies have been told not to grant visas to the members of the mission.
Since October 2016, the United States has given $151 million in humanitarian assistance for the displaced people of Myanmar. However, it’s been reported that the State Department is not supporting UEHRD. Perhaps the whole operation smells fishy to them? In any event, the U.S. has considered sanctions against the leaders responsible for the atrocities, but so far no punishment has been administered.
Relief Falling Short
The relief effort in Bangladesh just cannot keep up with the numbers. Aid agencies working in the country at the refugee camps have many short-term issues in dealing with the refugees. It’s estimated that one-third of the refugees do not have a full ration of food. The camps have sanitation problems, which leads to more issues, like disease. Workers try to vaccinate new arrivals against cholera, but are only able to cover half of the new refugees.
Long-term problems, such as education, have gone largely addressed. Some experts say that it will take 2,300 new schools just to accommodate all the displaced children. Even if 10 schools can be built each week… well, you do the math. The infrastructure and support networks just aren’t there. Much of the relief work is being funded through non-governmental organizations, who are doing what they can with the resources they have, but it’s not enough.
What Can We Do?
Most experts place the number of displaced Rohingya at 1 million or more — roughly the population of San Jose, CA. Imagine having to find housing and other services for that many people all at once. It’s great that Pope Francis finally decided to address the Rohingya, but it’s basically a meaningless gesture at this point.
In you’re as incensed about this as I am, please take the time to write to your representatives and ask that sanctions be imposed on Myanmar if the violence continues unabated. At the same time, we step up our support for relief efforts and help those on the ground trying to make a difference. The bottom line is this: no group deserves to be treated as poorly as the Rohingya have. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 25:
“Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”