In a deeply moving encounter, Francis greeted and blessed a group of Rohingya Muslim refugees, grasping their hands and listening to their stories in a show of public solidarity over Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades. He apologized for the "indifference of the world" to their plight and then pronounced the name of their ethnic group to a gathering of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian leaders.
"The presence of God today is also called 'Rohingya,'" he said, AP reported.
The 16 Rohingya — 12 men, two women and two young girls — had traveled to Dhaka from Cox's Bazar, the district bordering Myanmar where refugee camps are overflowing with more than 620,000 Rohingya who have fled what the UN says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar's military.
The campaign has included the burning of Rohingya villages and fleeing Rohingya have described arson, rape and shootings by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs that left them no option but to make the dangerous and sometimes deadly journey through jungles and by sea to Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government has denied any such campaign is underway. The army says "clearance operations" are targeting militants who attacked security positions in August.
Myanmar's government and most of the Buddhist majority recoil from the term "Rohingya," saying the members of the Muslim minority are "Bengalis" who migrated illegally from Bangladesh. Myanmar doesn't acknowledge them as a local ethnic group and won't give them citizenship, even though they have lived in Myanmar for generations.
One by one, each one of the refugees approached the pope at the end of Friday's event in the tented garden of the Dhaka archbishop's residence.
"Maybe we can't do much for you, but your tragedy has a place in our hearts," Francis said. "For those who have hurt you, and above all the indifference of the world, I ask your forgiveness."
He called for continued advocacy "so that their rights are recognized."
Francis had refrained from publicly raising the crisis or using the word Rohingya while in Myanmar out of diplomatic deference to his hosts.
Human rights organizations and Rohingya themselves had voiced disappointment at Francis' public silence in Myanmar, given he had previously denounced the persecution of "our Rohingya brothers and sisters." The Vatican defended it as diplomatically necessary, and stressed that his silence in public didn't negate what he had said in the past, or what he was saying in private.