But Roman Catholic leaders in Myanmar urged the pope not to explicitly mention the Rohingya — a contested and politicized term in the country — for fear of provoking a crackdown on Christians.
As a result, Francis has tiptoed around a diplomatic minefield. He publicly spoke in general principles while meeting privately with the country’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose own international reputation has plummeted for her refusal to speak out forcefully against the killings, and Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military and the architect of the politically popular persecution.
The Vatican hinted that the pope had raised the issue in those meetings and that he would feel freer to express himself here in Bangladesh. He is expected to meet with Rohingya refugees before he leaves for Rome on Saturday.
While the pope’s remarks on Thursday evening in Dhaka took a step toward a more full-throated recognition of the humanitarian disaster, his words paled in comparison to that of Bangladesh’s president, Abdul Hamid, who spoke before Francis in a chandeliered ballroom in the palace.
Saying the pope was aware that the Bangladeshi government had provided shelter to “one million Rohingyas who were forcefully displaced,” Mr. Hamid noted the “atrocities of the Myanmar army.” “Women and children were brutally killed, thousands of women were violated,” he added. “They saw their homes burnt into ashes.”
Emphasizing a responsibility to ensure the safe return of the Rohingya to Myanmar, Mr. Hamid commended the pope’s past comments in defense of the Rohingya, in a way that amplified the pontiff’s more recent silence.
“Your passionate voice against such brutality raises hope for resolving the crisis,” Mr. Hamid said. “Your closeness to them, your call for helping them and to ensure their full rights, provide moral responsibility to the international community to act with promptness and sincerity.”
Francis arrived in Bangladesh, which Popes Paul VI and John Paul II previously visited, on Thursday to a ceremony of marching soldiers, tradition dancers and cannon salutes. The traffic-choked streets of the capital were cleared of cars and sometimes people for the pontiff, who paid respects at a memorial to those who fell in the country’s war for independence and at the home where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, considered the father of the nation, was assassinated with much of his family in 1975.
But in this trip the pope’s words matter as much as any ceremony. And for all of his likely attention in the coming days on issues crucial to Bangladesh, such as climate change, labor conditions and terrorism, it is the word Rohingya, which the pope has so far declined to say, that may matter most of all.
Some dignitaries in the crowd felt that he had already raised awareness about the persecution.
“He did express in explicit terms the tragedy that has occurred in Burma,” Marcia Bernicat, the American ambassador to Bangladesh, said in an interview immediately after the speech. Describing the Rohingya as a people “who have been stripped entirely of everything, but they have their name,” she said the most important question for them now was “do they have a voice?” “And for everyone who bears witness to the suffering that they have been experiencing,” she added, “we help give them, and we help amplify, their voice.”
She said the pope had done so in the past, and also now.
In the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Haji Basar, a former civil servant in Myanmar, was the rare Rohingya who had heard of the pope. He even knew Francis had visited Yangon from listening to BBC Burmese. “He was asked by the government not to use the word Rohingya,” said Mr. Basar, 74. “I am not sad that he did not use the word Rohingya. I know that he loves the Rohingya people. He loves all human beings, and we are also human beings.”
Mr. Basar added that he believed the pope, as a Christian leader, carried the support of his followers.
“His words speak for all his people,” he said.