(CNN) — Pope Francis referred to the Rohingya people by name on Friday, the first time he has directly addressed Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim minority in his Asia tour.
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” the Pope said after speaking to an interfaith audience in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.
He did not use the term in public earlier in the week in Myanmar, to the dismay of campaigners for the Rohingya, whose stories of escaping violence in the country have provoked international condemnation.
After his speech, the Pope met a group of Rohingya refugees one-by-one, giving some of them blessings and listening to the stories of others.
“Your tragedy is very hard, very big. We give you space in our hearts,” the Pope said. “In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, those who hurt you, and especially of the world’s indifference, I ask for your forgiveness. Forgive us.”
“Many of you talked to me about the great heart of Bangladesh, which offered you refuge. Now I appeal to your heart to give us the forgiveness we are asking from you,” he told the group of refugees after meeting them.
More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled across the border from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh since a spate of violence began in August. Many say were forced to flee atrocities committed by the Myanmar military.
Myanmar’s government does not use the term Rohingya to refer to the group. It considers the Rohingya people to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though some families have lived in Myanmar for centuries. The Rohingya are not recognized as an official minority in Myanmar, effectively meaning they are denied citizenship.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke dismissed the idea that Francis — who has used the Rohingya term before — diminished his moral authority by avoiding a direct reference to the group during his visit to Myanmar, the first by a Pope to the Buddhist-majority country.
“People don’t expect him to solve impossible problems,” Burke said.
Activists argued that because Francis did not use the term while he was in Myanmar, he was complicit in its strategy to delegitimize the Rohingya plight by questioning their name and identity.
“The term Rohingya is not a racial slur. It is a dignified term for more than two million people who are living across the world,” European-based Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin told CNN in an email.