Leading a ceremony on Sunday for about 10,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican City, the head of the Roman Catholic Church compared refugees to Mary and Joseph, who had to travel from the Biblical city of Nazareth to Bethlehem but found no place to stay.
“So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary,” he said. “We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day. We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones.”
The pope said many refugees, the number of whom stands at 22 million worldwide, were being forced to flee from leaders who “see no problem in shedding innocent blood.”
Francis drew a parallel between the biblical story and the developments in the world today, including conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, human trafficking, Myanmar’s state-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign against its Rohingya Muslims and the US’s travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries.
The 81-year-old Argentine pontiff, himself born to Italian immigrants, has spoken out for refugees since his election in 2013.
A few weeks ago, Pope Francis spent six days in Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh to address the sufferings of Rohingya Muslims, who have been subjected to a state-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign at home in Rakhine State.
In Bangladesh, he had an emotional encounter with Muslim refugees, during which he asked for forgiveness from the Myanmarese refugees for all the hurt and indifference they have endured.
Almost 870,000 Rohingya Muslims have so far been forced to flee the Myanmar military’s state-sponsored crackdown to Bangladesh.
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” he said back then. “In the name of everyone, of those who have persecuted you, of those who have done you harm, above all for the indifference of the world, I ask forgiveness. Forgiveness.”