The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

Journalists might tear themselves away from U.S. evangelicals’ moral entanglements with Donald Trump and Roy Moore to consider how church leaders should handle rotten regimes overseas as grist for a reflective essay.

Pope Francis’s visit to Buddhist Myanmar put this on the news docket. Beforehand, Father Thomas Reese said Francis risked “either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” so “someone should have talked him out of making this trip.”

That is, Francis might harm Myanmar’s tiny, persecuted Christian flock if he denounced the military’s campaign of rape, mass murder, arson and forced exile against Rohingya Muslims. Yet sidestepping of atrocities had already besmirched the moral stature of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The pope decided not to publicly utter the word “Rohingya” in  Myanmar,  offering only generalized human rights pleas. Only later, meeting Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, did he cite their name: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

On the flight back to Rome, Francis told reporters that naming the victims in Myanmar “would have been a door slammed in my face.” Instead, he figured keeping silent  facilitated behind-scenes “dialogue, and in this way the message arrived.” So, did he defend the Rohingya when meeting the military? “I dared say everything I wanted to say.”

Despite criticism of the papal performance from human rights activists, Reese says Francis balanced his roles of “diplomat” and “prophet” to protect Christians while lobbying in private, and it’s unlikely public attacks “would have had any effect on the military.”

That recalls perennial complaints that Pope Pius XII should have more forthrightly denounced Nazi extermination of Jews. Pius’s defenders contend that would only have worsened conditions for both Jews and Christians, plus the pontiff as a peace idealist wanted open lines to Hitler in hopes he might mediate an end to World War II slaughter.

Then this: Zimbabwe is celebrating the Nov. 21 end of Robert Mugabe’s reign of terror. That history was assessed in The Wall Street Journal (note; behind pay wall) by exile Peter Godwin, who covered the dictator for The Sunday Times of London and BBC, and in his memoir “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun.” Another Zimbabwean journalist in that era, Angus Shaw, received an amply justified award for courage from his agency, The Associated Press.

Mugabe took control in 1980 after his guerrillas defeated Rhodesia’s white-minority regime. Godwin says people often suppose Mugabe only became “the brutal, kleptocratic, land-grabbing villain the world soon learned to hate” after marrying second wife Grace in 1992.

On the contrary, Godwin notes that soon after independence Mugabe’s soldiers killed off an estimated 20,000 innocent civilians to suppress political opposition, including some clergy coping with a nasty situation. Zimbabwe’s new ruler, Emmerson Mnangagwa, engineered that  bloodshed. Later, the regime tortured protesters “on an industrial scale.” Meanwhile, Africa’s most prosperous country “was laid waste” with the collapse of farming, industry, and much of the economy.

Amid the gathering chaos, the World Council of Churches made the astonishing decision to hold its 1998 global Assembly in Zimbabwe. The WCC had given symbolic funding and moral support to Mugabe’s revolutionary troops and, inevitably, honored Mugabe with an invitation to address delegates. Due to AP non-partisanship, the Religion Guy, among a handful of U.S. reporters present, could not write that Mugabe’s presence was a disgrace.

The Guy covered the WCC’s other Assembly in Africa  (Kenya, 1975) for Time magazine. That meeting featured fervent but futile protests by Africans against the WCC’s silence on persecution of church dissidents in the Soviet Union. In that era, the WCC also sidestepped criticism of Greece’s right-wing military putsch. The Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, forced to exist under police state conditions, did not want the WCC to speak out.

Since the WCC was actively denouncing the West’s political sins, an historian at the time called this “selective indignation.” Thus the challenge facing “mainline”  Protestant bureaucrats in Geneva, or papal advisors in Rome, or right-wing evangelicals in the U.S.: How to be morally wise, effective, and even-handed in political pronouncements. 

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