By Maria Lozano
Briefing for our Donors
BANGLADESH is awaiting the Nov. 30-Dec. 2, 2017 visit of Pope Francis. 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 country’s 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.”
Most Catholics in Bangladesh are indigenous tribal people. “According to the law and constitution they have the same rights as all the other citizens of the country,” but in reality they face daily discrimination and do not have the same educational or job opportunities. That is the assessment by Bishop Bejoy Nicephorus D’Cruze of the Diocese of Sylhet in the northeast of the country.
He told us: “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.”
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 more than 100 hundred villages. They are keen to protect the forest and the natural environment; they subsist on the 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.
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 told us 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 fall under the forest department and are 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 lands.”
Sometimes they even use violence, as Father Joseph Gomes explains: “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, and 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 the wake of a series of repeated conflicts with the government, more than 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 law suit against the tea gardens,” Bishop D’Cruze explains.
The Diocese of Sylhet is doing its best to give spiritual and moral support to the Catholic minority in the face of these challenge; it has launched various initiatives to encourage the people, such as the publication of a weekly review, the “Weekly Pratibeshi,” which aims to help the people grow in their faith and also make them aware of their rights.
Father Anthony Sen, who works as a journalist for the newsletter, insists on the need for this support. He told us: “They have all this pressure from the powerful people living around them, especially the Muslims. They think that, as they are a minority people, they can do what they like with them. They even think they can kidnap their young girls or attack the people, the women or the men, it doesn’t matter. So, they always have this kind of pressure. But, as a Church, we are beside them, to protect them; always we take care of them.”
It is an approach that sometimes involves risking their own lives, as Bishop D’Cruze can testify: he has received death threats from fIslamist groups in response to his clear posture in defense of human rights and religious freedom.
Such is the plight of the suffering and silent Catholic minority in Bangladesh which the Holy Father is about to visit. Bishop D’Cruze confirms that “the Holy Father knows the situation of the Church and of the Catholics in Bangladesh.” Speaking of the Khasi minority and their expectations of the papal visit, he explains: “They don’t have any high expectations of the Holy Father’s visit. They are simple people and they would be happy to come to Dhaka to see him and receive his blessing so that they can continue their struggle for survival, gain courage and fight against all the monsters.”
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has supported Church in Sylhet ever since the diocese was founded. Currently ACN is supporting various projects to support spiritual formation and human development, in collaboration with the diocesan pastoral, educational and justice and peace committees. In 2016, ACN gave more than $600,000 in support of projects in Bangladesh.