Solidarity visit to Bangladesh amidst growing religious intolerance

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In a recent solidarity visit to Bangladesh, an ecumenical delegation was updated about the on-going persecution and attacks against religious minorities occurring in the country since early March of this year.

The delegation met with members of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC), who expressed deep concern over new moves by the Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hefajat-e-Islam. These groups, they said, are calling to introduce thirteen demands for enacting Islamic principles, including points of Shariahlaw and a ban on Christian mission in the country.

The visit was organized by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) with the Christian Conference of Asia, and in cooperation with the National Council of Churches in Bangladesh (NCCB) from 5 to 8 April.

“The minority religious communities in Bangladesh are facing threats to their survival and are victims of systematic attacks. They are the main target of endangering Bangladesh to become a ‘zero minority country’ in future at the behest of the extremist groups,” stated members of the BHBCUC in their meeting with the ecumenical delegates.

The number of religious minorities in Bangladesh was more than thirty percent of the population before its independence in 1971. However, today the religious minorities constitute only 9.7 percent out of the population of around 160 million. A number of people belonging to the religious minority groups have left the country due to security threats.

“Impunity for lawbreakers and perpetrators of human rights abuses is a major problem in Bangladesh,” said Rana Das Gupta, president of BHBCUC, a lawyer at Bangladesh Supreme Court and prosecutor at the war crime tribunal. “Similarly, corruption and lack of professionalism among the police force worsens the situation, due to which the country's minorities live in a situation of fear and terrorism,” he added.

Gupta was speaking in reference to the wave of violent attacks against religious minorities which started hours after a hard-liner Islamist leader was sentenced to death on charges of rape and mass murder by a special war crime tribunal on 28 February.

The two war crime tribunals sentenced several public figures for atrocities committed during the country's struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971. Although Bangladesh has been considered a moderate Islamic country, there have been clear instances of violence against religious minorities, especially targeting Hindus and Buddhists.

In recent clashes, more than one hundred people lost their lives, and personal property belonging to the minority religious groups was destroyed. According to BHBCUC, 89 Hindu and Buddhist places of worship have been destroyed during the past one month.

Religious minorities are vulnerable in Bangladesh

Hafez Maulana Ziaul Hasan, chairman of the Sammilito Islami Jote (United Islamic Alliance) told the ecumenical delegation that “majority Muslims in the country are adherents to the values of true teachings of Islam, peace and tolerance, and they prefer to uphold secular principles in the constitution and a democratic political system.”

Solidarity visit to Bangladesh amidst growing religious intolerance

In a meeting convened by the NCCB, representatives of churches and ecumenical organizations said that Christians, now comprising less than five hundred thousand in a total population of around 160 million, are “passing through a nightmare”.

“Although Christians in the country have been spared from attacks this time, they are still more vulnerable than Hindus or Buddhists for being the only microscopic minority likely to face stark eventualities,” said Rev. David Anirudh Dass, general secretary of the NCCB.

“The Christians in Bangladesh will appreciate the much needed solidarity and support from the international ecumenical family at this time of their travail and anxiety,” said Joyantha Adhikari, member of the CCIA and president of the Baptist Church Sangha in Bangladesh.

“The ecumenical solidarity visit is a timely encouragement for the Christians to feel that they are not alone, and that the prayers of many around the world would support them,” said Bishop Paul Shishir Sarker, primate of the Church of Bangladesh.

In a meeting with the delegates, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh (NHRC) Dr Mizanur Rahman said that the Bangladesh government has not yet taken adequate measures to stop attacks against religious minorities. The minorities continue to live in utter insecurity due to lack of effective law enforcement and protection mechanisms in the country.

Dr Mathews George Chunakara, director of the CCIA, who coordinated the visit, said, “The WCC will assist the BHBCUC in making a presentation on the plight of religious minorities during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UPR is set to review Bangladesh’s human rights record on 29 April.”

Along with the WCC member churches, ecumenical organizations, interfaith groups and Islamic organizations, the delegation also met with members of the Roman Catholic Church in Bangladesh.