It was the first time he used the politically sensitive name for the persecuted minority on his current Asian tour, which has been dominated by their plight.

Pope Francis meets a group of Rohingya refugees at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka.
Pope Francis meets a group of Rohingya refugees at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka. (Reuters)

Pope Francis referred to refugees who have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh as "Rohingya" on Friday.

It was the first time he used the politically sensitive name for the persecuted minority on his current Asian tour, which has been dominated by their plight.

He made the comments after speaking to a small group of Rohingya refugees in the Bangladesh capital city of Dhaka.

The small group, who travelled to Dhaka from their camp specially to meet him, are among the thousands who have fled across the border from Myanmar in terror in recent months.

Among them was Shawkat Ara, a 12-year-old Rohingya orphan who broke down in tears shortly after the pope spoke to her and gently touched her head.

She later told AFP she escaped to Bangladesh after losing her entire family in an attack by the military in Myanmar.

"Today the presence of God is also called Rohingya," the pope said after the emotional encounter with the refugees on the sidelines of a gathering with the leaders of different faiths in Dhaka.

"Let us continue to do the right thing and to help them. Let us continue to work to ensure that their rights are recognised," he said.

"Let us not close our hearts, let us not look the other way."

Treading carefully

More than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have flooded into Bangladesh in the past three months, fleeing a violent military crackdown in mainly Buddhist Myanmar that the United Nations has described as ethnic cleansing.

Bangladeshi Catholics queue up to enter the venue for the papal mass led by Pope Francis in Dhaka.
Bangladeshi Catholics queue up to enter the venue for the papal mass led by Pope Francis in Dhaka. (AP)

Pope Francis is known for championing the rights of refugees and has repeatedly expressed his support for the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority whom he has described as his "brothers and sisters."

But the usually forthright pontiff walked a diplomatic tightrope during his four days in Myanmar – the first ever papal visit to the country – avoiding any direct reference to the ethnic cleansing allegations in public while appealing to Buddhist leaders to overcome "prejudice and hatred."

Call for action 

Hours after arriving in Bangladesh he addressed the issue head-on, calling for "decisive" international measures to address the "grave crisis."

But as in Myanmar, he avoided using the term "Rohingya", drawing criticism from some rights activists and refugees.

The word is politically sensitive in mainly Buddhist Myanmar because many there refuse to see the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group.

Pope Francis speaks as he visits the Dhaka Cathedral in Dhaka.
Pope Francis speaks as he visits the Dhaka Cathedral in Dhaka. (Reuters)

The 80-year-old Roman Catholic leader has frequently sought to influence a world he sees as indifferent to the plight of refugees forced to leave their homelands, whether through poverty or conflict.

Last year he took three Syrian families, all Muslim, back to the Vatican after visiting them on the Greek island of Lesbos, a hotspot for asylum seekers.

He has praised Bangladesh for giving refuge to the Rohingya, who have brought with them stories of horrific abuse at the hands of the Myanmar military and local Buddhist mobs, including rape, arson and murder.

Open-air Mass

Earlier the pope led a giant open-air Mass in Dhaka attended by around 100,000 Bangladeshi Catholics who sang hymns in Bengali and chanted "viva il papa" ("long live the pope") as he was driven through the crowd in an open-sided "pope mobile."

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass and the ordination of new priests at the Suhrawardy Udyan park, in Dhaka.
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass and the ordination of new priests at the Suhrawardy Udyan park, in Dhaka. (AP)

Bangladesh has a tiny Christian population but they turned out in large numbers for Friday's service, many having queued for hours to get into the park.

Some 4,000 police and security forces were deployed for the mass in the mainly Muslim country, which has suffered a number of attacks on religious minorities by Islamist extremists in recent years.

"I feel like I am blessed to join the pope's prayers," said 60-year-old widow Pronita Mra, who had travelled from her village in northeastern Bangladesh.

"I'll pray for my late husband and parents so that they go to heaven. I hope the Pope will pray for peace and harmony among all communities in Bangladesh."

Christians make up less than 0.5 percent of officially secular Bangladesh's population of 160 million and community leaders say it has become more difficult to practise their faith openly.

Pope Francis takes a ride in a rickshaw during the second day of his visit to Bangladesh, in Dhaka.
Pope Francis takes a ride in a rickshaw during the second day of his visit to Bangladesh, in Dhaka. (AFP)

But speaking to Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu leaders, Francis praised the country's commitment to religious freedom, which he said "stands as a subtle yet firm rebuke to those who would seek to foment division, hatred and violence in the name of religion."

Source: AFP