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Special Report by ICC
8/2/13 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – As Islamist militants press their attacks against Catholic Christians in north-west Bangladesh, the government needs to take swift action to ensure the safety of the minority community.
On June 6, a group of Islamists attacked an entire village in Dinajpur district. As Christians fled and sought shelter in a Catholic mission compound, a mob of more than 100 Muslims, armed with locally made weapons, stormed into the compound and beat up the priest and seminary students.
The incident was only one of a series of targeted attacks against Catholics in the region. “In the Dinajpur diocese in the north-west of the country, Catholic Christians are being repeatedly attacked by Muslim groups,” according to Véronique Vogel, head of the Indian section of Aid to the Church in Need.
“The worst of it is that in three villages which have been attacked, the men were no longer at home. Many women and children are suffering and living in fear and terror,” according to Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur.
Although the motives for these attacks are economic and political, Christians are a poor minority group without any political clout. As such, they are vulnerable to acts of persecution which are carried out without fear of punitive action in this Muslim-majority country of 160 million people.
“For months militant forces in Bangladesh have recruited a lot of new followers. This is a very worrying development. A few months ago Buddhists were attacked and now it’s the turn of the Christians. Not only religious motives are involved here, but also political ones. There is a great shortage of land in Bangladesh, for example. Some groups therefore sometimes put simple people under great pressure with the aim of taking over their land. If on top of this they belong to a different religious community a religious and political conflict will soon develop. Bangladesh is a powder keg, a very poor country with serious social problems,” Vogel said.
The most worrying part of the increasing attacks in the region is the lack of action by authorities against the known perpetrators, Islamic militants. A missionary center in the village of Bulakipur is being guarded by 30 policemen, but the violence against Christians is being carried out without any punitive action.
As Corey Bailey, Regional Manager for International Christian Concern, says, “According to their Constitution, there is religious freedom in Bangladesh, but that exists only on paper. Muslims attack religious minorities with impunity. If there is to be peace, and if religious minorities are to be able to practice their faith with religious freedom, those who attack them must be held accountable for their actions.”
The growing anti-Christian sentiment in Bangladesh is fueled by the lack of political will to uphold religious freedom, the indifference of the legal system towards the victims of persecution, the unresolved social problems that plague the nation, and the pervasive notion that Christians are soft targets.
Fodder for Persecution
Christians are being targeted for persecution even as the ruling government is being opposed by Islamist-friendly voices seeking to exploit the religious identity of the majority Muslim population.
Islamists have been active in Bangladesh ever since the nation’s Supreme Court ruled that the fifth and eighth amendments of the Constitution were null and void in 2010. These amendments were made to establish Islam as the state religion and pave the way for religion-based politics. The 2010 verdict reinstated the four pillars of the state, democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism, as found in the 1972 constitution before the amendments.
Now that a general election is expected in the coming months, Islamists are trying to gain ground. And with the possibility of a new government keen on introducing anti-blasphemy laws, Christians are at risk of further persecution in the future.
Thanks to Bangladesh’s internal problems of widespread corruption, human trafficking, extreme poverty, and an unreliable judicial system, conditions are conducive for persecution of Christians by extreme Islamist militants who have no fear of legal consequences.
As the Bangladeshi government tries to navigate its way through complex social and political problems, it must find the political will to protect its Christian citizens from the violations of their religious and human freedoms. In fulfilling its commitments to religious freedom, it will only serve the nation’s interests by keeping a divisive extremist sentiment from devastating the country.