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ICC Note:

Pope Francis is preparing to visit persecuted Christians in Bangladesh from November 30 to December 2. One of the most densely populated countries in the world and a Muslim majority country, Christians only make up a tiny percentage of the overall population. Because of their religious identity and often their ethnic identity as well, Christians in Bangladesh often face discrimination. Sometimes, Christians are targeted for attacks by extremist groups operating in Bangladesh. Will Pope Francis’ visit help highlight the persecution of Christians in Bangladesh? 

11/22/2017 Bangladesh (ACN) – Bangladesh is awaiting the visit of Pope Francis from 30th November to 2nd December. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and the third most populous Muslim nation in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan. In line with his desire to “go out to the peripheries”, Pope Francis will be visiting the small Catholic community in the country, which represents less than one percent of the population. The motto of the papal visit is “harmony and peace” – a vitally important subject in a country where life is by no means easy for the Christian minority.

Most of the Catholics in Bangladesh are members of the indigenous tribal peoples. And although “according to the law and constitution they have the same rights as all the other citizens of the country,” in reality they face daily discrimination and do not have the same educational or job opportunities, says Bishop Bejoy Nicephorus D’Cruze of the diocese of Sylhet in the northeast of the country. He was speaking to the Catholic charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “Their rights are not acknowledged automatically; if they fight, they might possibly be successful, but it is very difficult to fight alone, especially against the prevailing religious sentiment and against the corruption in the courts,” he explained.

The Khasi are the main ethnic group in the diocese of Sylhet and they are practically all Christians. For centuries this tribal people have inhabited the hill country in the region around Sylhet, dwelling in something over a hundred villages. They are keen to protect the forest and the natural environment, and they live from the traditional cultivation of betel leaves. Their practice is to occupy an area of land for 30 to 40 years or so, until the land is exhausted, and then move on to another area. Although this is their ancestral land, they have no constitutional recognition of their rights. Father Joseph Gomes, OMI ministers to the Khasi Catholic community and he confirms that the native peoples of these mountain regions suffer discrimination and exclusion from social services and are often caught up in a struggle to protect their traditional lands. Bishop D’Cruze explains the reasons behind this conflict: “All these mountains are under the forest department and frequently adjacent to the tea plantations, and so the tea plantation management is taking out leases from the government and ignoring the existence of the Khasi people, in order to extend the existing tea gardens, thereby forcing the Khasi people to evacuate their ancestral land.”

Sometimes they even use violence, as Father Joseph Gomes explained sadly: “Around three years ago the manager of a tea plantation arrived with a group of around 200 people, while the village men were away working in the forest, they began to pull down the village houses. Initially, the women resisted these attempts, and when the men returned they also opposed the attempt and fighting broke out. One person from the tea company died later in hospital. In the end, however, the people were unable to continue fighting against the tea companies and as a result they were evicted from these lands.”

In a series of repeated conflicts with the government forest department, over 25 Khasi villages have now disappeared. Others are currently in danger. “Two of the tea gardens, Nahar and Jhimai in Moulvibazar district, are attempting to take the land of the Khasi people forcefully. The people of these two villages – about 150 families – are about to file a case against the tea gardens”, Bishop D’Cruze explained.

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