Francis didn't cite the crackdown or even utter the contested word "Rohingya" in his speech to Myanmar's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other authorities and diplomats in the capital. But he lamented how Myanmar's people have suffered "and continue to suffer from civil conflict and hostilities," and insisted that everyone who calls Myanmar home deserves to have their basic human rights and dignity guaranteed, AP reported.
Rohingya Muslims have faced state-supported discrimination in the predominantly Buddhist country for decades, deprived of citizenship and unable to access basic services such as adequate education and health care. In August, the army began what it called "clearance operations" in Rakhine state following an attack on police posts by insurgents. The violence, looting and burning of villages has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
In his most anticipated speech of his weeklong trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Francis insisted that religious differences in the majority Buddhist country must never be a cause for division or distrust.
"The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good," he said.
Francis' avoidance of the term "Rohingya" and his encouragement for Suu Kyi's government disappointed Rohingya activists and human rights groups, who have criticized Suu Kyi for what they consider a weak response to the military crackdown.
"We thought that the pope was going to mention the suffering of Rohingya people, but now he cannot even use the name Rohingya and it's totally unacceptable," said Kyaw Naing, a 53-year-old Rohingya man who lives in a confined camp outside of Sittwe, in Rakhine state. "We are very sad that our identity cannot even be revealed."
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said he hoped the pope would use the term during Mass today.
"The pope missed an opportunity to reinforce his previous messages that affirmed the rights of the Rohingya to self-identify and used the name that they had chosen for themselves," he said. "The Rohingya have been stripped of so many things, but their name should never be one of them."
Francis arrived in Naypyitaw after meeting with leaders of Myanmar's different religious groups in Yangon at the archbishop's residence, and separately with a prominent but controversial Buddhist leader who has criticized the Rohingya.
Rohingya Muslims were stripped of citizenship in 1982, denying them almost all rights and rendering them stateless. They cannot travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors, and have little access to medical care, food or education.
Francis previously has prayed for "our Rohingya brothers and sisters," lamented their suffering and called for them to enjoy full rights.