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ICC Note:

Four months after two Christian pastors were arrested for proselytizing among Muslims in Bangladesh, tensions across the country remain high. Rumors of illegal Christian conversions have spread across the country causing many of Bangladesh’s Christians to feel insecure. Islam is established as the official religion of Bangladesh, but the country’s constitution also provides its citizen the freedom of religion. As tension continue to run high, will Bangladesh continue to protect the rights of its minorities or will it protect its official religious identity? 

2/10/2015 Bangladesh (The Malaysian Insider) – It has been almost four months since Protestant pastors Ariful Mondol and Mousumi Mondol were arrested for illegally proselytizing among Muslim villagers in Bangladesh’s northwestern Lalmonirhat district. While the married couple was later released on bail, the case – still ongoing – has taken its toll on Banbhasa village.

Across Bangladesh, clashes over conversion have loomed large. In Lalmonirhat, the first case yet to surface has seen rising tensions and fissures among neighbors.

“I myself have studied in a Church school and most Muslims revere Christians in this area. Now, people are upset over the incident and they are saying bad words against Christians,” said Shaon Firoz, 33, a local leader of the ruling Awami League party.

On November 9 last year, the pastors were arrested while holding a secret mass conversion.

“They attempted to convert a group of 40 Muslim villagers secretly and it made other villagers angry,” said Mahfuzur Rahman, officer in-charge at Banbhasa police station in Lalmonirhat district.

The trial is ongoing and the next hearing will be held this month. If found guilty, the pastors from the fringe Church of God could face up to two years imprisonment for violating the country’s religious freedom law.

Though Islam is officially the state religion, Bangladesh’s constitution established the country as a secular state. The charter also protects the right to profess, practice and propagate any religion freely, but bans proselytism.

The pastors have denied any wrongdoing and defended their right to freedom of religion.

“My husband and I came to this area nine months ago and we have converted some people who wanted to become Christians, but none of them have been lured with money or other rewards,” said Mousumi Mondol, 30.

Mondol alleged that a local imam who doesn’t like Christians filed a case against them and provoked local Muslims with a “fabricated lured conversion” story.

The imam refused to meet and talk with, but an aide said the pastors should leave the area immediately or face “dire consequences”.

While the case is running in court, the Muslims who wanted to convert to Christianity have backtracked fearing a backlash from fellow Muslims, according to Rahman.

The story of “lured conversion” has stuck and throughout Banbhasa village, local Muslims have expressed anger over the incident.

“I felt so angry when I heard they wanted to convert 40 Muslims for money. If police hadn’t come and arrested them, people would have beaten them up,” said Shafiqul Islam, 45, a Muslim who runs a tea stall in the village.

“If Muslims want to become Christians we have no problem, but we are angry because they have been lured with money and property. They will burn in hell for their sins,” he added.

The Awami League party leader Firoz said some Muslim parents are considering pulling their children from the local Church school fearing they might be “entrapped for conversion”.

One villager, who converted to Christianity a few months ago and spoke on the condition of anonymity, defended his decision saying he was attracted to the teachings of the Bible.

“I know Muslims say bad words about me and my family because we have left Islam to become Christians. We are happy to be Christians but now we are concerned for our safety after the recent incident,” he said.

The incident in Lalmonirhat is unprecedented, but similar cases have happened across rural Bangladesh.

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