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Compass Direct (04/10/06) – An angry mob set fire to a church in a remote area of Bangladesh on March 30, capping a year of extreme hostility towards villagers who had converted from Buddhism to Christianity.

While Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country, Buddhism flourishes in small pockets like Pancchari, where the attack took place. Pancchari is a sub-district of Khagrachhari district in the southern Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Immediately after the attack, a Bangladesh army contingent was deployed to Kinamonipara village in Pancchari to prevent further violence, according to local media reports.

A Year of Hostility

Tensions have soared between Buddhists and Christians in Pancchari over the past year.

The situation became critical when Buddhist leaders called a village meeting on April 22, 2005, following a Christian baptism ceremony held on April 15. At the meeting, Buddhist villagers were told to stop speaking to Christian converts, cease trading with them in the marketplace, and boycott all social gatherings such as weddings and funerals where Christians were present.

A month later, on May 22, Buddhist leaders sent letters to the heads of all Christian families in Kinamonipara, inviting them to another village meeting. This time the Buddhist leaders verbally attacked the Christians, promising violence if they did not give up their faith and return to Buddhism.

When the Christians refused, the Buddhists decided to treat them as social outcasts. No villager would be allowed to sell to Christians or buy their agricultural produce. Buddhists told the owners of rice mills and tractors not to loan or rent their equipment to Christians. These sanctions were a major financial blow to the Christians, who were too poor to own or purchase their own agricultural tools.

Buddhist authorities also tried – unsuccessfully – to expel Christian leaders from the local committee of a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project, hoping this would make it harder for Christians to receive UNDP relief. This attempt to restrict aid for Christians has continued.

When a third meeting was called on May 27, Christians who tried to attend were banned from the meeting. A sympathetic villager leaked information that area leader Bagya Chakma had openly threatened to kill Uzzal Kanti Chakma, the pastor of Kinamonipara Presbyterian Church.

Pastor Chakma fled the area before 12 men launched an attack on his house at 10 p.m. on May 28. When villagers discovered he was not present, they returned on May 29 and threatened to cut his wife open with a sword.

The pastor then approached local council members, who said they could not provide security for the Christian community. Some Christians fled the area, fearing for their safety.

Another church in nearby Choungrachari Mukh Nikonja Karbaripara was attacked on June 3; Buddhist leaders supervised the beating of two Christians, Gyan Ratan and Ananda Joy. A third Christian, Kripa Ranjan, began crying and escaped the beating. The Christians were each asked to pay a fine of 5,000 taka (US$71) and return to Buddhism before June 10 or the small Christian community in the village would be uprooted.

The Christians paid the fine and were allowed to remain in the village without abandoning their faith, but they live in fear of another attack.

Christian sources in the capital, Dhaka , said the tension was at least partly due to Buddhist leaders losing temple fees from villagers who converted to Christianity.

They also said Christians in Pancchari were told not to contact higher authorities or they would face greater persecution. Christian villagers injured in beatings were warned not to seek hospital treatment or they would be beaten again on their return home.

Four Faiths Collide

The settlement of Bengali Muslims in the Chittagong Hill Tracts has exacerbated tension between Buddhist and Christian villagers. A small number of Hindus from neighboring Tripura in Northeast India have also settled in the area.

In an attempt to overcome huge population density in lowland areas, the Bangladesh government allocated large parcels of hill tract land to Bengali Muslims from 1976 onwards, ignoring the fact that village communities had owned this land for centuries.

The Muslim settlers took land granted by the government, and encroached further into tribal territory. When villagers protested, troops were sent in to protect the settlers and permanent army barracks were established.

A civil war between hill tracts rebels and government forces ended with the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord on December 2, 1997. The tribes, however, then split into two distinct factions, with one side supporting the central government and the other preferring independence.

Religious differences then became a focal point for villagers who needed a scapegoat for their frustrations.

Christians elsewhere in Bangladesh can do little to support those in Pancchari; the area is geographically remote, and travel in the region is restricted because of the tenuous peace between rebels and government forces.

Local Christians, who feel completely isolated and unable to appeal to local authorities, said they are depending on God for a just resolution.