Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, and president of Caritas Internationalis and Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon and president of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) spent two days visiting the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar district of southeastern Bangladesh this week.
During the visit they met Muhammad Abul Kalam, head of Bangladesh's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, the main state body overseeing more than one million Rohingya refugees living in 30 refugee camps in Cox's Bazar.
Cardinals Tagle and Bo were accompanied by Bangladeshi Cardinal Patrick D'Rozario of Dhaka, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB) and Archbishop Moses Costa of Chittagong, CBCB secretary-general, under whose jurisdiction come the refugee camps, and Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, CBCP vice-president.
The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic group, that mostly lives in Western Myanmar's Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh. Buddhist-majority Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though they have lived in the country for generations. Denied citizenship under a nationality law passed by the government's military regime in 1982, they are virtually stateless and denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.
Bangladesh is currently hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas, most of whom fled to Cox's Bazar following two deadly military crackdowns in the Rakhine State of Myanmar in 2016 and 2017.
Abul Kalam said he was delighted by the visit of two prominent Catholic Church leaders and he presented to them "an overview about the crisis."
"I conveyed to them the gigantic challenges we are facing and told them we appreciated the various activities undertaken by Caritas for the refugees," Kalam told UCANEWS. "We have appealed to them to continue the Church's support. I believe the cardinals now have a good idea of the various challenges the refugees are going through, especially the risks during monsoon season as well as health and environmental problems."
The cardinals talked to several Rohingya refugee families at Camp 4 and Camp 17 in Kutupalong, the largest of the refugee camps, which shelters more than 400,000 Rohingya. They also met Caritas staff and volunteers and saw the Caritas programmes, including model shelters and the distribution of cooking gas cylinders to refugees.
The visit by the cardinals took place at the same time as a visit by a ten member Myanmar government delegation that held repatriation talks with the leaders of the Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar.
The Rohingya leaders rejected the delegation's offer to return to Myanmar unless they are recognised as an ethnic group with citizenship in their home country, and unless their demands for justice, international protection and the ability to go back to their original villages and lands are met.
While Cardinal Tagle has been to the Rohingya refugee camps before - he visited them in December last year - this was the first visit by Cardinal Bo.
James Gomes, regional director of Caritas Chittagong, who coordinated the visit, told UCANEWS that the visit was exclusively on "humanitarian grounds" on behalf of Caritas Internationalis and the FABC and was not "diplomatic" in nature.
He said Cardinal Tagle's last visit was limited to Caritas activities in the camps. This time, he met government officials and viewed the activities of other aid agencies as well." He said the cardinal now has a broader view of the challenges in the camps.
When Pope Francis visited Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017, he met a group of Rohingya refugees on December 1, during an interreligious and ecumenical meeting for peace at the Archbishop's House in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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