DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Pope Francis ordained 16 priests during a Mass in Bangladesh on Friday, the start of a busy day that will bring him face-to-face with Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar at an interreligious prayer for peace.
An estimated 100,000 people gathered in a Dhaka park for the service, which mirrored the ordination Mass St. John Paul II celebrated when he visited Bangladesh in 1986. Since then, the Catholic Church here has bloomed, with a near doubling of the number of priests and dioceses around the country.
Later Friday, Francis hosts an interfaith peace prayer alongside Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other Christian leaders in the garden of the archbishop's residence. Francis has frequently used such events to demand that religion must never be used to justify violence — a message that will likely resonate in Bangladesh, which has experienced a series of attacks blamed on Muslim militants in recent years.
The Vatican said 18 Rohingya refugees from camps in Cox's Bazar will be on hand at the event to greet the pope.
Upon his arrival in Dhaka on Thursday, Francis demanded the international community intervene to resolve the Rohingya crisis, which has seen more than 620,000 refugees flee Myanmar's Rakhine state for Bangladesh in what the U.N. says is a textbook case of "ethnic cleansing."
Francis, who had refrained from publicly raising the crisis while in Myanmar out of diplomatic deference to his hosts, didn't identify the Rohingya by name, ethnicity or faith in his arrival speech. He referred only to "refugees from Rakhine state." But his words were sharp, lamenting the "immense toll of human suffering" among the refugees and the sacrifice Bangladesh was making to try to cope with what has become Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades.
"It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis, not only by working to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people, but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs," he said.
Human rights organizations and Rohingya themselves had voiced disappointment at Francis' public silence in Myanmar, given he had previously denounced the persecution of "our Rohingya brothers and sisters." The Vatican defended it as diplomatically necessary, and stressed that his silence in public didn't negate what he had said in the past, or what he was saying in private.
Rohingya, though, again expressed dismay on Friday that Francis had refrained from identifying them by name, as he had done in the Vatican.
"The fact that hundreds of thousands of people are in trouble and the fact that he cannot even use the word that represents that population, it's so sad to see," said Faizel, a 27-year-old Rohingya who lives in a confined camp outside of the capital Sittwe in Rakhine state. "If people with power don't want to represent us, our future is very uncertain."
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said Francis had missed an opportunity while in Myanmar to affirm the Rohingya identity before the very Burmese authorities who are trying to deny it. While welcoming Francis' appeal for urgent aid to Bangladesh, Robertson said: "By his actions, the pope put a major dent in his reputation as a person not afraid to speak truth to power, and sadly appears to have gotten little in exchange for it."
Friday morning, Francis' attention turned toward Bangladesh's tiny Catholic community, which represents a fraction of 1 percent of the majority Muslim population of 160 million. Despite its small size, the Catholic Church runs a network of schools, orphanages and clinics and has enjoyed relative freedom in its work, though Christian missionaries say they have received letters threatening dire consequences if they continue to spread Christianity.
In his homily ordaining the new priests, Francis thanked those who came out for the Mass, noting that some people had travelled two days to attend.
"Thank you for your generosity," Francis said. "This indicates the love that you have for the church."
The celebration took place in Dhaka's Suhrawardy Udayan Park, where in 1971, independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman delivered a speech laying the groundwork for Bangladesh's independence. Dhaka Cardinal Patrick D'Rozario, named Bangladesh's first-ever cardinal by Francis last year, told the pope at the end of the Mass that Friday's ordinations made the sacred ground even more meaningful.
Bangladesh has traditionally enjoyed peaceful co-existence with its ethnic and religious minorities, but in recent years several attacks blamed on extremists have targeted atheists, foreigners, Christians and even members of smaller Islamic sects.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has rejected the claim, saying the group doesn't exist in the country. The government has blamed the domestic group, Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, for the assaults.
Bangladesh's security agencies launched a serious crackdown in July last year after five young men stormed a cafe in Dhaka's diplomatic zone and killed 20 hostages, including 17 foreigners. To date, the agencies have killed about 60 commanding level suspected militants.
Associated Press writer Esther Htusan in Bangkok contributed to this report.