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Pope Ends Bangladesh Visit with Praise, Humor

Pope Francis greets and blesses one of the guests of the Mother Teresa House in the Dhaka's Tejgaon neighborhood, Bangladesh, Dec. 2, 2017.

Pope Francis visited a home in Dhaka founded by Mother Teresa for orphans, unwed mothers and destitute elderly on Saturday as he wrapped up his trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The pope, who leaves for Rome later Saturday, was surrounded by children and nuns wearing the traditional blue-and-white habit of the woman who died in 1997 and became a saint in 2016.

Mother Teresa, who started the Missionaries of Charity to serve “the poorest of the poor,” opened the home in the early1970s to look after Bengali women who became pregnant as a result of rape by Pakistani soldiers during the war of independence.

Today the home, in one of the world’s poorest cities, looks after orphaned and abandoned children, unwed mothers and sick elderly people.

Francis, who has made outreach to the poor and other people on the margins of society a priority, visited some of the bed-ridden sick.

Pope Francis interacts with a Rohingya Muslim refugee at an interfaith peace meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 1, 2017.
Pope Francis interacts with a Rohingya Muslim refugee at an interfaith peace meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 1, 2017.

Pontiff says Rohingya

Francis said he was very pleased by an inter-religious meeting Friday night, where he held an emotional encounter with Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and then used the word Rohingya for the first time on his current trip, saying they had God within them and should be respected.

Previously, in Myanmar, he followed the advice of Myanmar Church officials who said his use of the word could prompt a backlash against Christians and hurt Myanmar’s fragile path to democracy.

That had disappointed rights groups such as Amnesty International.

Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar does not recognize the stateless Rohingya as an ethnic group with its own identity.

Best relations among religions

At the Saturday morning meeting at the home founded by Mother Teresa, the pope praised Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country where Catholics make up less than 1 percent of its around 169 million people, for having what he called some of the best inter-religious relations in the world.

As he has done in similar encounters, Francis told the priests and nuns gathered in Dhaka’s Holy Rosary Church that he was ditching the eight-page speech that he had prepared and would instead speak to them from his heart.

“I don’t know if it will be better or worse, but I promise it will be less boring,’’ he quipped.

And then for the next 15 minutes, Francis had the crowd in stitches, mixing paternal advice on how to tend to religious vocations (‘‘with tenderness’’) with gentle warnings about the havoc that gossip “bombs” can wreak when lobbed in closed religious life.

History’s first Jesuit pope has frequently lamented the damage gossip can do within the church, where vows of obedience, strict hierarchies and closed communities can breed jealousies and resentment.

The Bangladeshi edition was far more jovial in tone, and many in the pews nodded along as Francis delivered one zinger after another to make his point. It was a humor-filled end to a tense diplomatic trip.

His last event in Bangladesh will be a meeting with young people at a college founded by Catholic priests after the war of independence in the early 1970s left the new country with a dearth of places of higher education.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.