DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Pope Francis ordained 16 priests during a Mass in Bangladesh on Friday, the start of a busy day that will bring him face-to-face with Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar and the reality of Islamic extremism in South Asia.
An estimated 100,000 people gathered Friday in a Dhaka park for the service, which mirrored the ordination Mass St. John Paul II celebrated when he visited Bangladesh in 1986.
Later Friday, Francis is hosting an interfaith peace prayer alongside Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other Christian leaders in the garden of the archbishop's residence. Francis has frequently used such events to demand that religion must never be used to justify violence — a message that will likely resonate in Bangladesh, which has experienced a series of attacks blamed on Muslim militants in recent years.
The Vatican said 18 Rohingya refugees from camps in Cox's Bazar will be on hand at the event to greet the pope.
Upon his arrival in Dhaka on Thursday, Francis demanded the international community intervene to resolve the Rohingya crisis, which has seen more than 620,000 refugees flee Myanmar's Rakhine state for Bangladesh in what the U.N. says is a textbook case of "ethnic cleansing."
Francis, who had refrained from publicly raising the crisis while in Myanmar out of diplomatic deference to his hosts, didn't identify the Rohingya by name, ethnicity or faith in his welcome speech alongside Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid. He referred only to "refugees from Rakhine state." But his words were sharp.
"None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps," he said.
"It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis, not only by working to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people, but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs," he said.
On Friday, Francis' attention turned toward Bangladesh's tiny Catholic community, which represents a fraction of 1 percent of the majority Muslim population of 160 million.
Despite its small size, the Catholic Church runs a network of schools, orphanages and clinics and has enjoyed relative freedom in its work, though Christian missionaries working in Bangladesh, a Sunni-majority country, say they have received letters threatening dire consequences if they continue to spread Christianity.
In his homily ordaining the new priests, Francis thanked those who came out for the Mass, noting that some people had travelled two days to attend.
"Thank you for your generosity," Francis said. "This indicates the love that you have for the church."
The celebration took place in one of Dhaka's best known parks, where in 1971, independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman delivered a speech laying the groundwork for Bangladesh's independence in a decisive moment for the country.
Bangladesh has traditionally enjoyed peaceful co-existence with its minorities, but in recent years several attacks blamed on extremists have targeted atheists, foreigners, Christians and even members of smaller Islamic sects.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has rejected the claim, saying the group doesn't exist in the country. The government has blamed the domestic group, Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, for the assaults.
Bangladesh's security agencies launched a serious crackdown in July last year after five young men stormed a cafe in Dhaka's diplomatic zone and killed 20 hostages, including 17 foreigners. To date, the agencies have killed about 60 commanding level suspected militants.