There is always this anecdote about the papacy, at the end of World War II the Allies were talking about holding meeting and upon a proposal to invite the Vatican to the conference, Joseph Stalin, who did not fancy the idea, is said to have responded, "How many divisions does he have?"
The Papal States ended in 1870 when the totality of Italy was reunited. On Feb. 11, 1929, a historic agreement, the Lateran Treaty, was signed between the Italian government and the Vatican. Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini signed the treaty alongside Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Gasparri. The status of the Vatican was again that of a political power and had diplomatic standing. However, it was highly symbolic as a state, as it was a few square kilometers within Rome, no physical borders or controls, a kind of a Monte Carlo of Catholicism.Thus, the pope had no divisions left; not even a police force with firearms. No one at the time thought that the Vatican could have a real presence in international affairs other than moral cautions here and there.
That was without counting the resilience and international experience of the Catholic Church, which, especially through the guidance of Pope John XXIII – Cardinal Roncalli as he is known to Istanbulites – reformed itself theologically and acquired an important place in world affairs. I do not want to ramble on the effects of Pope John Paul II accession over the dismantling of the socialist system, but there is the fact that the pope still has immense influence on moral grounds when it comes to human rights abuses around the world.Pope Francis organized a visit to Myanmar, basically to make an act of presence in view of the terrible treatment of the Muslim Rohingya population in Rakhine state by Myanmar authorities. It is worth saying that he is the only important public official to take the risk to go to Myanmar and publicly try to call out the unacceptable treatment of this small and very poor minority. For the record, Turkey has been the only country to make a solemn appeal to Bangladesh, an impoverished country, to take in all the refugees and it would cover all the expenses.
Myanmar has been continuously treating its Rohingya minority as a kind of "untermensch," establishing a legal discriminatory regime that resembles apartheid South Africa before the era of Nelson Mandela. So long as it was a military regime without any democratic perspective, all the criticism was upon the undemocratic nature of the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi, the very staunch and long-time leader of a democratic opposition, was seen as the solution to Myanmar's terrible human rights record. She was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her indomitable stance back in 1991.She won a mild victory over the military in 2012. She and her political movement have won all the elections since 1990, but the military junta has always found a reason to invalidate them. She is now seemingly heading a country, without being nominated president, although she has been popularly elected. The bizarre constitution of her country does not allow her to have a say over the military or police forces.
The real strong man of the regime is senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who was little known outside the country's military circles until Rohingya villages started burning. He presides over the futures of hundreds of thousands Rohingya Muslims with the same empathy Joseph Goebbels felt for Jews. In 2009, his forces drove tens of thousands of people out of two ethnic enclaves in eastern Myanmar in just a few weeks. His latest operations encompassed nearly 1.5 million people.Pope Francis met Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who is extremely confident in his popularity because the war waged by the military against non-Buddhist minorities has the backing of a large part of the public. Internationally, the operations have been qualified as ethnic cleansing, and condemned as such. However, Aung Sang Suu Kyi did not really react to the atrocities, trying to minimize the whole tragedy.
So here we are in a surrealistic situation, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who receive the award for defending human rights chooses to look the other way from the atrocities, serving as a moral shield to ignominious ethnic cleansing, whereas Pope Francis as the head of the Catholic Church sets himself as the protector of the unfortunate Muslim minority of Myanmar. The pope will perhaps be criticized for having cautioned Min Aung Hlaing by meeting him, but up to now he remains the only international figure to dare to openly challenge Myanmar on the Rohingya tragedy and to go and see the Rohingya in their despair.
So what kind of human rights activism do we need in the year of grace 2017, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate covertly cautioning the religious discrimination in her own country or the multi-millennial Church, trying to convey Jesus's message of peace and love? We certainly live in a strange and dangerous transition period, and the only acceptable human rights criterion remains the capacity to show empathy for other citizens of the world.
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