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Catholics in Bangladesh: An embattled but expanding minority

Despite crushing poverty and persecution, the Catholic Bangladeshi community is growing.

In Bangladesh, Catholics—who account for just 0.2 percent of the population—have suffered from incidences of violence and persecution. However, the Catholic population continues to grow in the Southern Asian country, where Pope Francis has just established a new diocese.

Catholicism came to the region in the 16th century with the arrival of Portuguese sailors. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh was established in 1971, the same year Bangladesh achieved its independence from Pakistan.

In a nation with a total population of about 150 million, the Bangladeshi Catholic population is 350,669, according to the 2014 Catholic Directory, which also says that there are 367 Catholic priests, 1,051 nuns, and 107 religious brothers, along with 97 parishes and 49 Catholic secondary schools.

Owing to the Portuguese influence, many current-day Bangladeshi Catholics have Portuguese names. However, there is an increase of Catholics with non-Portuguese names, according to “S,” a Catholic journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who, for security reasons, requested that his full name not be used.

Nuns and members of the Bangladesh Christian Association attend a ceremony June 3 commemorating the victims of a 2001 bomb blast in Baniarchar at the University of Dhaka. People observed the 13th anniversary of the bombing in which 10 people were killed and dozens more injured. (CNS photo/Andrew Biraj, Reuters) (June 4, 2014)

Based on multiple news reports, it appears that anti-Christian attacks are on the increase. Such groups as World Watch Monitor, which reports on persecution of Christians around the world, recently published an article, “More Attacks on Christianity in Bangladesh,” which tells how the country “continues to see a rise in attacks and intimidation” against Christians.

Despite this information, S sees the overall situation as less religiously volatile and contends that the persecution takes place over issues of land. As Bangladesh is a “tiny but overpopulated country,” the price of land is rising, so “some land-grabbers try to occupy Christians’ land illegally,” and this is the motivation behind most anti-Christian persecution.

Perhaps the most infamous anti-Catholic attack took place in June 2001, when a bomb exploded in a Catholic church during Sunday Mass, killing nine and maiming dozens.

More recent attacks include a January 2014 incident, in which homes were set ablaze and eight Catholics were injured, allegedly for exercising their right to vote in the nation’s parliamentary elections.

In July 2014, a mob of 60 stormed a Catholic convent, where they proceeded to beat up nuns and a priest.

In April 2015, a mob attacked churchgoers and stabbed a priest during Easter Mass.

In November 2015, an Italian priest and doctor, Piero Parolari, was shot and wounded while riding a bicycle.

In December 2015, three adult siblings in a Catholic family were attacked while inside their home. Two of them were injured critically.

In early February 2016, a group of 20 raided a church and a convent at night. Nuns were beaten and property was looted.

Christians have been receiving letters threatening their lives, according to the Catholic media outlet AsiaNews, which estimates that, despite the potential consequences, thousands of Bangladeshis convert to Catholicism each year.

S describes Bangladeshi Catholicism as “fast growing” and feels that there’s a “huge opportunity” to expand the Church. He says that Catholic groups and charities are “helping by their good work to win [the] heart” of those currently belonging to other faiths.

Another way in which Catholicism spreads is the Pratibeshi, which serves as Bangladesh’s Catholic weekly newspaper and which marked its 75th anniversary in 2015. This publication has a circulation of about 8,000 and is available in the nation’s parishes, according to Vatican Radio.

S touts the Pratibeshi as having “immense influence” on Catholics, and adds that the paper reaches “over 33 countries where Bangladeshi Catholics are living as migrant workers.” Through this paper, they can read about Church teachings and world Church news, and receive messages from their bishops.

He also tells how some Pratibeshi readers who began contributing to the paper as writers have gone on to work for national and international media outlets.

Another Catholic institution that improves lives is the charitable organization Caritas Bangladesh. S says that 95 percent of the people assisted by Caritas Bangladesh come from other faiths.

Bangladesh is ranked as the world’s 35th most-oppressive country for Christians, according to Open Doors UK, a Christian rights group, which lists “Islamic extremism” and “religious nationalism” as the primary reasons for anti-Christian sentiment.

S feels that there is a “healthy” relationship between Catholics and Hindus (a much larger religious minority that makes up about 12 percent of the overall population). He also feels that Catholics and Muslims have a generally peaceful relationship.

Muslims are the religious majority in Bangladesh and account for more than 85 percent of the overall population. Though Islamic extremism is an issue, S believes that the government is striving to remove “all kind of militancy or religious fanaticism.”

He is “hopeful” about the future of the Church in Bangladesh, saying that there are some good leaders who have commitment. However, he feels that Church authorities should encourage laypersons to become more involved in politics, as “Catholics are not much active in this sector.”

One Catholic who does have a position of government authority is Promod Mankin, State Minister for Social Welfare. He used to serve as headmaster of a Catholic school and is the former Caritas Regional Director of Mymensingh, Bangladesh.

For the overwhelming majority, Bangladesh is not an easy place to live, regardless of one’s religion. Though the World Bank reports that dire poverty has been reduced in recent years, many millions are forced to subsist on amounts approaching one dollar (USD) per day. And the nation has among the world’s highest rates of child malnutrition.

With its low-lying terrain, Bangladesh is frequently beset by floods and has been ranked as the nation most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The capital city, Dhaka, is one of the most crowded places on the planet, and was a runner-up for the world’s “least livable” major city in a 2015 annual ranking by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Congested urban areas combined with poverty lead to unsanitary living conditions and serious health problems for people who typically can’t access good medical care.

Bangladesh was ranked as the world’s 12thmost dangerous country for journalists in 2015, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which mentions multiple recent incidences of bloggers being murdered by Islamic extremists.

Under such circumstances, Bangladesh’s Catholic minority still finds a way to blossom.

Courtesy: The Catholic World Report

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