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BANGLADESH: Scores of indigenous Santal converts to Catholicism return to ancestral Sarna faith

Scores of people from the indigenous community are embracing their old Sarna religion, claiming the Church has neglected them


UCA News (28.04.2021) – https://bit.ly/3vpmflX – Dozens of indigenous Santals who embraced Catholicism years ago have returned to their ancient, nature-worshipping Sarna religion, alleging a lack of social security and support from the Church.

In the latest case, a Santal family returned to the Sarna faith in the presence of leaders of Santal villages in Niamatpur in Naogaon district on April 19.

A photo of the reconversion ceremony posted on Facebook triggered a heated debate among Christian and non-Christian Santals over the causes of conversion of Santals to Christianity and their return to their ancestral creed.

Santal leaders claimed that people from indigenous communities are returning to the old faith as they face negligence and lack of social support.

Others claimed that they became Christians “out of greed” and returned when their wishes were not fulfilled.

Noresh Tudu (not his real name) converted to Catholicism with his seven-member family in 2000. However, they renounced Christianity and returned to the Sarna faith in 2018.

Tudu, 42, a private job holder, says he was attracted to the Christian faith due to great social works by Catholic priests.

“I’ve seen some Catholic priests doing extraordinary work for Santal people. They have been providing medical facilities when needed and sent our children to schools and hostels. They stood beside us in any difficult situation such as land disputes or lack of food. I became a Christian because of their kindness, not because of greed,” Tudu told UCA News.

However, Tudu claimed that he felt betrayed and frustrated when he faced social problems including a land dispute.

“My community abandoned me since I became a Christian. When I faced a legal case over a land dispute, no one from the Church came to support me. However, some people from my community stood beside me. I decided to return to my traditional faith to be united with my community,” he added.

Tudu said 15 Santal families became Catholics with him in 2000 and all except for two have returned their traditional faith.

A Catholic priest said allegations of negligence and lack of support from the Church are baseless and suspected social pressure from the community was behind reconversion of ethnic Christians.

“This person never came to the Church for help and allegations of negligence are groundless. The Church never forces people to become Christians and respects people’s right to religion,” Columbian PIME missionary Father Belisario Ciro Montoya, parish priest of Christ the King Church in Naogaon, told UCA News.

Subas Murmu, 34, a Santal primary school teacher who follows the Sarna faith, has been a vocal critic of Christian evangelists who allegedly proselytize ethnic people by defaming their traditional faith.

“I have no problem with who is following which religion. But I cannot except when evangelists defame our traditional faith to make it an eyesore for people. They highlight the prejudices about our religion and convert Santals to Christianity with false propaganda. For years, this campaign of conversion has caused division within the Santal community,” Murmu told UCA News.

He claimed that Santals who convert to Christianity are greedy as they are lured by promises of education for children and good jobs.

“Sometimes, indigenous people who marry Christians are also forced to become Christians. There are cases of Santals who converted due to promises of residence on church-owned land,” he added.

Murmu alleged that mass conversion of Santals by Christian missionaries in the past has divided the community and the unity and harmony that existed in the community have been lost.

“I wish to establish a common platform for Santals regardless of whether they practice Christianity or the traditional faith. We need to be united and think about developing the community,” he said.

Santals are one of the largest ethnic indigenous groups in India and Bangladesh and are believed to be among the earliest settlers on the Indian subcontinent. In Bangladesh, Santals are spread in various northern districts close to the Indian border.

Both in India and Bangladesh, Santals are among the most marginalized communities due to lack of education and extreme poverty.

Over the past decades, about 200,000 out of more than 250,000 Santals in Bangladesh have become Christians, according to the National Adivasi Council, which covers northern Bangladesh. Most converts have been extremely poor and the conditions of most Santals didn’t change much even after changing faith, council leaders say.

Dinajpur and Rajshahi dioceses cover much of northern Bangladesh and both are predominantly indigenous, with Santals forming the majority of more than 110,000 Catholics.

Santal Christians, however, refuted claims that the faith didn’t change the lives of people.

Subodh Baskey, a Santal Catholic and development worker, said his grandparents became Christians not to gain anything but because they loved Christianity, adding that his family didn’t exploit the faith to get money, jobs or land.

“It is true that those who have become Christians are better off than other Santals or other indigenous groups. They have become educated, secured jobs and improved their lives,” Baskey told UCA News.

He also alleged that many priests don’t offer spiritual, pastoral and social care to ethnic Catholics.

“Today’s priests are busy with themselves. They don’t seem to take much spiritual care, they don’t talk about the rights of the indigenous peoples, and they are not aware of how to provide social security. There are no statistics or research, but it is true such a negligent attitude has been driving some ethnic Santals to embrace their old faith,” Baskey said.

Father Patrick Gomes, senior priest and coordinator of the Interreligious Commission in Rajshahi Diocese, said the Church does not offer any incentives to anyone who embraces Christianity.

“Every year, many ethnic brothers and sisters become Catholics out of passion, not greed. They are attracted to the Christian faith thanks to our polite and dignified services and preaching. If they are poor, they get monetary and other support from church groups like Caritas, which is open for poor people from any religion,” Father Gomes told UCA News.

The priest said that those who become Catholics and then return to the old faith “are not Catholics from the heart.”

“Some people become Catholics for social protection and material things. The Church is a minority and is often unable to provide everything. We keep in touch with people and work for justice and peace. It is true that even our best efforts won’t seem good enough for some people,” Father Gomes added.

In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Christians make up less than half percent of more than 160 million people. There are an estimated 600,000 Christians, mostly Catholics, and about half of them hail from indigenous groups.

Photo : A photo of a reconversion ceremony posted on Facebook triggered a heated debate among Christian and non-Christian Santals in Bangladesh. (Photo supplied)


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BANGLADESH: What happened in Noagaon? A different perspective

By Syed Fattahul Alim

What happened in Noagaon?

The Financial Expert (22.03.2021) – https://bit.ly/3lH19vH – The vandalism perpetrated by a mob against the residents of Noagon village in Shallaupazila in the country’s northeastern district of Sunamganj on March 17 has drawn widespread attention and criticism from all sections of society. The spontaneous public protests and posts on the social media by people from all walks of life show how united the people of Bangladesh are when a member or members of any minority ethnic or religious group is subjected to violence or any kind of injustice at the hands of a vested quarter whatever its ethno-religious or other kinds of identity.


In the violent incident in question, the victims were the members of the Hindu community while the attacking mob were allegedly from surrounding villages.


Some 90 Hindu families were victims of the attack. Their houses were ransacked and their valuables looted. Also, some Hindu religious places of worship were vandalised. However, no death has been reported so far from the scene of violence.


But who were those attackers? It is said that the incident occurred following a facebook post by a Hindu youth from that village critiquing the views of a Muslim cleric who is also a leader of a pro-Islamic platform, Hefazat-e-Islam. So, an accusing finger is being pointed at the members of that religious platform for the March 17 mayhem in Noagaon.


The media was also quick to tell the easy story. The international media also did the same quoting local media painting a grim story of thousands of Islamist fanatics participating in a communal attack on the Hindu population sponsored by an extremist Islamist group. But all these reports went viral even before police could properly investigate the incident.


However, the leaders of the Hefazat-e-Islam denied their involvement in the incident.


Meanwhile, the police carried out raids and arrested some 33 suspects and filed cases against hundreds of unidentified suspects. Interestingly, of the arrested people, the main suspect is learnt to be a member of the nearby Saramangal union council and is said to be an activist of a front organisation of the ruling party.


And according to some eyewitness reports, scores, not hundreds, let alone thousands, were involved in the attack.


So, to all appearances, some vested quarters whose motives are far removed from anything religious were behind the incident. And the members of pro-Islamic religious platform alleged to have been involved in the vandalism were used as pawns by powerful quarters. With further police investigation into the unfortunate incident, the identities of the instigators of the vandalism and its perpetrators will hopefully come out and the violence-mongers brought to justice.


Compared to many neighbouring and even Western countries, the number and frequency of incidents as can be called communal violence are few in Bangladesh. Most importantly, a closer scrutiny of such past cases of violence against minority groups would reveal that the instigators behind the incidents and goons involved in the violence had a purely secular motive of grabbing lands or other kinds of property belonging to the victims who are poor and helpless. And who does not know that the poor members of a religious or ethnic minority are the most helpless people on earth and as such are also the easiest prey for the predators looking for their quarry?


As could be gathered from the local people, at the heart of the vandalism in question were also such non-communal, non-religious, but grossly material interests such as lands or water bodies on which the villagers depended for their livelihood. Needless to say, the victims of Noagaon were also very poor people of the Hindu community.


But before the facts could come to light, a smokescreen was created and the real culprits took shelter behind it.


Stereotyping religious, ethnic and racial identities is an old, favourite game of the global corporate capitalism. And its cronies in the media, civil society and politics dance to its tune to their advantage.

Photo: Dhaka Tribune

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BANGLADESH: Minorities protest in Dhaka against anti-Hindu violence

Christians, Buddhists and Hindus held a rally to protest against an attack by Muslim radicals against the Hindu community in Sunamganj District. The mob desecrated a temple. One minority leader lamented the fact that “the police and local authorities were silent” on the day the country celebrated 50 years of independence and the creation of a secular state.


by Sumon Corraya


AsiaNews (22.03.2021) – https://bit.ly/2Qp8Gnn – The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council organised a rally on Saturday in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka to protest against an attack three days earlier against the Hindu community in Noagaon, a village in Shalla (Sunamganj District). About a hundred leaders from religious minorities took part in the initiative.


On Wednesday of last week, supporters of the Hefajat-e-Islam Group and other radical Islamists attacked Hindu homes. A mob of several hundred men from Noagaon and nearby villages came with hand-made weapons forced their way into the homes and looted them.


Following the incident, the police arrested a local official, Shahidul Islam Swadhin, who also heads the local section of the Jubo League youth organisation.


At the rally in Dhaka, participants condemned the attack in Sunamganj. Christian James Subrata Hajra, deputy secretary general of the Bangladesh Christian Associationsaid he was tired of having to protest the persecution of minorities.


“We live in an independent country,” he said. “If the persecution does not stop, we minority groups will have to stage even bigger protests.” He urged the government to arrest all those responsible for the attack on Hindus.


Buddhist leader Ushaton Talukdar, president of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, is saddened by the indifference towards those who spread hate.


“While Hindus were being attacked, the police and local authorities were silent. They could have protected them but didn’t. In an independent country, we religious minorities shouldn’t live in fear. I call on the government to ensure justice.”


Hindu leader Neem Chandra Bhowmik stressed the importance of unity among minorities. “Yesterday I visited the village of Noagaon,” he said. “I saw what kind of attack was carried out. Radical fanatics have destroyed not only houses, but also desecrated the Hindu temple. This is a very sad fact that requires exemplary punishment.”


What makes the attack on a minority even more serious is that it coincided with the country’s celebration of 50 years of independence. Protesters noted that Bangladesh was born in 1971 after a bloody war to set up a secular state in which people of all creeds could live together as brothers.


Photo: AsiaNews.it

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BANGLADESH: Two Protestant churches attacked and ransacked

Forest Department officials tore down a Seventh-day Adventist church in Bandarban district for lack of construction permit. Extremists attacked another Protestant church in northern Bangladesh because of the presence of new Christians. For the Bangladesh Christian Association, everyone should be guaranteed the right to practise their own religion and justice should be done.

by Sumon Corraya

Asia News (04.03.2021) – https://bit.ly/2PtCAq9 –  Bandarban – A recent attack against two churches, one of which was demolished, is causing concern among Bangladeshi Christians.

On 25 February, 10 Forest Department employees tore down the Sathirampara Seventh-day Adventist church in Ali Kadam, Bandarban district. The building was under construction. The congregation was replacing the old bamboo hut used as a church with a brick building.

The Forest Department said that the community was not authorised to build on land under its jurisdiction. Yet, the area already has four mosques, three Buddhist temples, four large markets as well as public and private schools. No problems were reported in connection with any of these structures.

Sathiram Tripura, one of the leaders of Sathirampara Church, told AsiaNews that people from two villages in the hills have been coming to his makeshift house of prayer for many years.

“Members of the community set aside the money for 15 years to build the brick church,” he explained. “Not being able to finish the construction is very sad.”

The demolition took place while the men of the community were working in the forest. The community includes more than a hundred people who now find themselves praying in the open air, Tripura noted.

Without a church the situation will become very difficult when the rainy season begins. However, for Forest Department official S M Kawsar, his agency did not destroy any church, it simply  cleared government land.

“Construction takes a permit and Christians did not have it,” he explained. “In this village, there are only three or four Christian families. There is no need for a church.”

Another incident occurred a few days earlier in Aditmari, Lalmonirhat district (northern Bangladesh). A group of local Muslims attacked Emmanuel Church on 10 February, which is located in a predominantly Muslim village. The Protestant house of prayer has existed since 2003.

Local pastor Rev Lovlu S. Levy said that four people destroyed the church sign, cut trees, forced the entrance, and stole 30 chairs and two carpets worth 14,000 taka (US$ 165).

“Residents in this area are fundamentalists,” he explained. “When I first went to the police they did not want to file the report of what happened; they also told me not to inform journalists of the attack.”

Violence against the church appears to be the result of anti-Christian propaganda at a local Islamic meeting place (waz mahfil) where Muslim religious leaders engage in hate speech.

Rev Lovlu S. Levy also reports that anger against Christians is linked to the fact that new members have joined the community.

“Muslims are angry because we have received Christ, which is why they attack us. Now we live in fear, ten new believers have fled the village for their safety.”

Bangladesh Christian Association President Nirmol Rozario condemned these two episodes of violence.

With respect to the Sathirampara Church in Bandarban district he noted that everyone has the right to practise their religion. “I call on the local authorities to ensure that Christians can soon build their own church.”

As for the attack in Aditmari, “radical Muslims tried to frighten Christians. We condemn the attack and demand justice.”

Photo: AsiaNews.it

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Bangladesh approves death penalty for rape after protests

Move comes after nationwide demonstrations sparked by series of sexual assaults.


By Hannah Ellis-Petersen


The Guardian (12.10.2020) – https://bit.ly/2H0T84M – Bangladesh will introduce the death penalty for rape cases, after several high-profile sexual assaults prompted a wave of protests across the country in recent weeks.


Speaking to reporters on Monday, cabinet secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam confirmed that the cabinet had approved a bill ruling that anyone convicted of rape would be punished with death or “rigorous imprisonment” for life.


The death penalty amendment to the women and children repression prevention bill, which currently stipulates a maximum life sentence for rape cases, will come into effect on Tuesday, said the law and justice minister, Anisul Huq.


Last month, footage of a young woman being violently assaulted and gang-raped by a group of men in the south-eastern Noakhali district went viral on Facebook, after the video was released by the attackers to blackmail and shame the victim. Eight people have been arrested in connection with the case.


It led to an eruption of protests in the capital, Dhaka, and other cities at the failures to tackle the endemic problem of sexual assault and rape in Bangladesh.


“This truly disturbing footage demonstrates the shocking violence that Bangladeshi women are routinely being subjected to. In the vast majority of these cases, the justice system fails to hold the perpetrators responsible,” said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, south Asia researcher at Amnesty International.


Outrage had already been mounting after several members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the governing party, were arrested and charged with gang-raping a woman in the northern town of Sylhet a few weeks earlier.


Many of the protesters on Dhaka’s streets had called for stricter punishment, including the death penalty, and the crowds carried placards bearing messages such as “Hang the rapists” and “No mercy to rapists”.


However, Amnesty pointed out that the issue in Bangladesh was not the severity of punishment for rape, but a failure of the courts to bring convictions in rape cases and the victims’ fear of coming forward.


Naripokkho, a women’s rights organisation, found that in six districts between 2011 and 2018, only five out 4,372 cases resulted in a conviction. Overall, only 3.56% of cases filed under the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act have ended up in court, and only 0.37% have resulted in convictions.


The problem appears to be worsening. Between January and September 2020, at least 975 rape cases were reported in Bangladesh, including 208 gang rapes, according to statistics gathered by human rights organisation Ain-o-Salish Kendra. In over 40 of the cases, the women died.


The UN also released a statement last week expressing its concern at the escalating cases of sexual violence against women: “The recent case of the woman from Noakhali that was circulated through social media has yet again underlined the state of social, behavioral and structural misogyny that exist.”


The statement said urgent reform was needed to “to the criminal justice system to support and protect victims and witness, and to speed up the slow trial process”.


In January, after a student at Dhaka University was raped, the government was ordered by the courts to form a commission to address the rise in sexual assaults and put together a report by June. The commission has yet to be formed.

Photo: Bangladeshi students and activists protest in Dhaka demanding justice for a recent gang assault on a woman. Photographer: Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury/Rex/Shutterstock.

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