ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Pope Francis leaves Sunday for a weeklong trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Bangladesh is mostly Muslim, Myanmar predominantly Buddhist, and its military's brutal attacks on a Muslim minority called the Rohingya have led to accusations of ethnic cleansing. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the pope will face a difficult balancing act in both places.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Pope Francis often speaks forcefully on behalf of migrants across the world who are exploited or expelled. In February, he singled out those being driven from Myanmar.
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POPE POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Our Rohingya brothers and sisters wander from one place to another because they are not wanted. They are good, peaceful. They are not Christians. They are suffering for years, tortured and killed simply for their Muslim faith.
POGGIOLI: Since August, an estimated 600,000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar military attacks into neighboring Bangladesh. But days before his departure, Francis' video message to Myanmar made no mention of the Rohingya. In fact, local church leaders had advised him not to utter their name, fearing reprisals by Buddhist fundamentalists.
BERNARDO CERVELLERA: No need to use the word. What is important is to use words to define the problem.
POGGIOLI: Father Bernado Cervellera, head of the Catholic news agency Asia News, says the Rohingya are stateless, scorned by the Buddhist majority who consider them illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
CERVELLERA: The problem is not a fight between Buddhists and Muslims, but it is a fight between a society who want to be reconciled. And some power - in this case military power - they don't want to reconcile the situation.
POGGIOLI: In Myanmar, the pope will meet State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The former long-detained dissident Nobel Peace Prize winner and now de facto prime minister is under intense criticism from human rights activists across the world for not denouncing the brutal military crackdown on the Rohingya. Father Cervellera is convinced Aung San Suu Kyi does not wield sufficient power, and one of the pope's aims is to show his support for her in Myanmar's transition to democracy.
CERVELLERA: We read this problem of Rohingya as an attempt by the army in Myanmar to stop the work of Aung San Suu Kyi and to destroy her image of the human rights defender in front of the world.
POGGIOLI: After Myanmar, Pope Francis will visit Bangladesh, where Christians are less than 1 percent of the country's population of 160 million. But Catholic schools and hospitals serve all Bangladeshis, and Catholic charities are at the forefront assisting Rohingya refugees. Father Gabriel Amal Costa, born in Bangladesh, says decades of ethnic and religious harmony are jeopardized by increasing Muslim fundamentalism.
GABRIEL AMAL COSTA: Nowadays, we see that fanaticism is occurring. Christians feel insecure.
POGGIOLI: Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are burdened by extreme poverty and ranked in the top 10 of climate change risk, and Pope Francis is likely to focus on economic and environmental justice. He's also expected to insist on the need for interreligious dialogue in two countries afflicted by ethnic tensions and where exploitation of religious differences is a useful tool for political gain. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.