By the Rev. Paul Jeffrey
Some ten million people in the world today are stateless. They aren’t recognized as citizens of any nation. Without legal status, they are subjected to repression and exclusion.
Two million of those are Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim. Although the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, growing Buddhist extremism, unquestioned militarism and heavy Chinese investment in Rakhine State have manufactured a consensus that the Rohingya are simply not Burmese, that they are at best Bangladeshi and at worst a form of vermin. That attitude forms the ideological foundation for a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing that has driven more than 600,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, where they’re living in crowded primitive camps in the south of the country.
Bangladesh has done its best to host the Rohingya, but it refuses to call them refugees, as under international law that would obligate them to offer certain conditions. Instead it refers to the Rohingya as “displaced Myanmar nationals”, and hopes they’ll soon go home. Bangladesh is already overcrowded and there’s no room for the newcomers. Yet the Rohingya, who fled burned villages and scenes of mass rape, aren’t willing to go home. So, for now, they wait, knowing that no one wants them.
The ethnic cleansing in Myanmar didn’t emerge from nowhere. Ask just about anyone in Myanmar today, including leaders of the Methodist Church, what they think of the Rohingya, and they’ll tell you how evil they are, how they should be driven out, and how claims of genocide against them are simply fake news invented by western human rights activists. Even the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been unable to hide her racism and Islamophobia. Sickeningly, the Burmese church, as the church universal has been wont to do throughout history, has collaborated with this ideological campaign.
Pope Francis will visit Myanmar later this month, and the country’s Catholic bishops have asked him not to even mention the R-word, to literally forget about the Rohingya. But Francis doesn’t take orders easily, and in August he mentioned the Rohingya by name, calling them sisters and brothers and noting their suffering. Whether and how he uses the R-word inside Myanmar will be closely watched in the days ahead.
Yet as we watch Pope Francis, let us also watch our own language. What do we say about migrants and refugees? It’s easy to criticize the overt racism of neo Nazi groups and politicians who characterize Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. What’s hard is to challenge that rhetoric of fear with a language of solidarity and hope. We in the church must speak words that unequivocally break through the stereotypes that exclude others from our communities. We must practice radical hospitality that welcomes the stranger, knowing that we are entertaining angels and perhaps even embracing Jesus himself.
Let us watch our language. Let us speak words that welcome refugees and the displaced, words that shelter the homeless and wrap the brokenhearted in love. When others speak or tweet words of hate, let us stand strong and speak powerful words that proclaim that the Rohingya–or whoever is pushed to the margins, excluded, or made into non-persons–are our sisters and brothers with whom we share a beloved community.
Gallery: Rohingya seek refuge in Bangladesh
By the Rev. Paul Jeffrey
The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a missionary from the PNW Conference. He spent October in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
If you would like to support Jeffrey’s work in mission, you may send your gifts to The PNW Conference with “Paul Jeffrey, missionary code: 09541Z” in the memo.