Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
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by Matthew

It depends on whom you ask.

Some of the recent headlines look ominous. And as Bangladesh heads toward a national election in January 2024, there is concern among religious minorities that the country could take a step in favor of fundamentalist Islam.

Representatives from the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council recently went on hunger strike to express their fear and frustration over not having enough of a political voice to adequately address religious persecution.

According to the World Watch List, recent years have seen Bangladesh rise in severity. There are reports of land seizures of Christians becoming more prevalent, as well as politicians adopting a harsher tone toward religious minorities.

Over 90% of the 170 million people in Bangladesh are Muslim. The vast majority of the remainder is Hindu. Christianity has existed as a minority faith in Bangladesh for over half a millennium, dating back to the arrival of Portuguese explorers and Catholic missionaries in the early 1500s. The Protestant faith arrived in the mid-1700s due to the influence of British India.

Establishing numerous schools, hospitals and other social service venues, Christians have had an impact on Bangladesh that far exceeds their small part of the overall population.

Among current-day Bangladeshi Christians, about half are Catholic and half are Protestant, with Baptists comprising the most popular Protestant denomination.

Rev. Bishop Banarjee of B.L.C.M. says the Catholic Church faces persecution in Bangladesh but that Protestants tend to face more widespread persecution.

As to the percentage of Bangladeshis who are Christian, statistics range from as low as 0.3% to as much as 1 percent. Banarjee puts the number at 0.3%. He describes the situation of Christian converts as “ongoing,” taking place “not rapidly” but “slow and hidden.”

Rev. Samuel* (real name withheld to protect identity), a pastor in Dhaka, says it’s difficult to estimate the number of Christian converts, explaining that converts to Christianity often choose to keep the Muslim or Hindu name appearing on their national ID card.

Though Islam is designated as the state religion, Bangladesh’s constitution stipulates “equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.” In practice, however, converting to Christianity in Bangladesh can beget significant difficulty, particularly if the convert comes from a Muslim background.

For decades, Bangladesh had been considered a moderate Muslim-majority country. But Banarjee says a change away from moderation began to take place about 20 to 25 years ago, when politicians started appealing to more strong line segments of the Muslim population.

Banarjee says that although some anti-Christian incidents are perpetrated by Hindus, the vast majority are perpetrated by Muslims.

“If a Muslim converts to Christianity and declares their allegiance to Jesus publicly, they face immediate threats and violence. These new Christian believers stand to lose their families, communities, and very lives,” says Banarjee.

“It’s very difficult to say what percent of Bangladeshi Muslims support acts of persecution against Christians,” says Banarjee. But whatever the precise number, he contends that such trouble has become more widespread in the last decade, and at this point “large numbers of Muslim people like to persecute Christians.”

Banarjee adds that, in the last ten years, many church buildings have been destroyed and many Christians have lost their property or their lives.

In June 2023, Patrick D’Rozario, the former archbishop of the Catholic archdiocese of Dhaka, made national headlines when he denied that there is significant persecution against Christians in Bangladesh.

Banarjee described the former archbishop’s denial as “a political statement.”

Samuel, though, seems to agree with the former archbishop. “Compared to Pakistan, Christians enjoy freedom in Bangladesh,” he says.

However, just because a country has less persecution than Pakistan doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe.

Finding Christians to share about conditions in Bangladesh can prove somewhat challenging. Some seem scared for their safety. Others seem to feel that current conditions aren’t so bad but could get worse quickly if they draw too much attention to the issue of persecution.

“The government will counsel us to not make any clash with majority people,” says Samuel. He feels the government is also concerned about violence from Islamic fundamentalists inside the country.

Aside from fundamentalist violence, persecution can surface in Bangladesh through land grabs. Land can be scarce in Bangladesh, which is among the world’s most densely populated countries. And of the world’s ten most densely populated nations, Bangladesh has by far the most people.

Banarjee says Bangladeshi Christians are easy targets for land grabs because the people grabbing the land figure that the authorities won’t care about Christians getting victimized, even if the unlawful evictions turn lethal.

Aside from land grabs, Banarjee says, “Very often churches are destroyed.” He also reports having received religiously motivated death threats on two occasions and suffering an attack while riding his motorcycle.

“Day by day, the persecution against Christians is increasing,” says Banarjee. “And in the next ten years, there will be more.”

However, Samuel feels that persecution has become less severe over the last 15 years. And that there are now fewer incidents of arson against churches and fewer physical attacks on Christians.

Samuel believes that, overall, most Muslims in Bangladesh do not support persecuting Christians. He adds that many of the Bangladeshi Muslims are decent people, but there is an uneducated portion of the population who can become “brainwashed by the hatred” vented by radical imams, whether they encounter these imams in person or online.

Samuel says that anti-Christian persecution is not often a part of life in urban areas. But in remote areas, where people are generally not as educated, such persecution is more likely to surface.

He relates that last year, while baptizing Muslim converts to Christianity in a village, there were Muslim villagers standing outside the home. That night, when Samuel had returned to Dhaka, these Muslim villagers began accusing the new Christian converts of having burned the Quran. The converts ultimately had to flee their home and village and shelter in the city.

Samuel explains that the Bangladeshi government is not in favor of such harassment, but that villages are, to a large extent, outside their protection. He adds that authorities will tell Christians to refrain from making any legal complaint, adding that if they do so, life will be more dangerous.

As Bangladesh approaches its national election in early 2024, religious minorities will be watching with apprehension. Even Christians like Samuel, who feel that their government makes a reasonable effort at maintaining religious pluralism, acknowledge that ultimately the “politicians are elected by vote, and they must focus on the majority groups.”

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