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Christian leaders fearful of politically-charged war crimes tribunal

Church avoids thorny issue of Bangladesh justice

Christian leaders fearful of politically-charged war crimes tribunal
Ghulam Azam, former head of Jamaat-e-Islami party, is one of many opposition figures called to the war crimes tribunal (AFP) reporter, Dhaka

December 19, 2012

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When Bangladesh was born as a nation in 1971, the war with Pakistan which led to independence saw an estimated three million killed and 200,000 women raped at the hands of Pakistani forces and local collaborators. Most of the victims were Muslims but a large number were Christians.

Starting in 2010, the long-overdue war crimes tribunal initiated by the ruling Awami League has been plagued by accusations it is being used as a political tool amid arrests of the leaders of the main opposition Bangladesh National Party and Jamaat-e-Islami.

Meanwhile, many Christians are asking why Church leaders have remained silent amid cries for justice.

Bishop Gervas Rozario, head of the Catholic bishops' commission for justice and peace in Bangladesh, admits that minority religions are afraid to comment on a process that has fueled persecution and violence in the country in recent years.

“We have never made any official statement in favor or against it because we fear a political backlash over the issue,” he says.

This policy towards the controversial tribunal process has been devised locally, he adds, and not by The Vatican.

Part of the concern stems from relations with Jammat, the hard-line Islamist party – among the three most prominent political forces in the country – which has seen nine of its leaders arrested and charged with war crimes.

“If we openly support the trials and if Jamaat ever comes to power, they wouldn’t spare us,” says Bishop Rozario.

A dimension of this policy is also moralistic. The tribunal can sentence defendants to death if found guilty of the gravest charges.

“We do seek justice for war crimes and we offer moral support for trials but we are against capital punishment,” says Bishop Rozario.

Meanwhile, Catholic Bangladeshis have waited more than 40 years for justice.

Ambrose Gomes, a Catholic former guerilla fighter, says the Church could and perhaps should take on the role of a voice for the oppressed – including his lost family members – which might also bolster and improve the trial process.

“The Pakistani army killed my innocent brother because I fought against them,” he says.

During the war, many churches and Christian homes provided food and shelter for displaced people and independence fighters. This year, four Catholic missionary priests – including two who died during the war – received the country’s top Bangladesh Liberation War Honour. But the Christians' aid made them targets of retaliatory arson, looting, rape and murder.

Other minority dominations and religions similarly suffered. Their attitudes towards the ongoing justice process have differed depending on how much they feel they have to lose in a Bangladesh caught in a cycle of vengeful violence, strikes, protests, arrests and disappearances.

Michael Eldar Shah, a Baptist leader in Bangladesh, says his church follows a similar path to Catholics.

“We admit that the nation must prosecute the war criminals,” he says. “But we might have to face problems in future.”

Among Hindus, the country’s largest minority religion which makes up about eight percent of the population, sentiments are different.

Amid anti-Indian propaganda in Bangladesh as the country moved towards independence, Hindus were a main target. And Hindus and Muslims have hardly enjoyed harmonious relations on the subcontinent in recent times.

Bijoy Kishna Goswami, a priest at the Dhakeswari National Temple which was destroyed during the war, says Hindus have made an official appeal in favor of the tribunal.

“Otherwise, we would remain guilty to the nation if we don’t seek justice,” he says. “We want the criminals to confess their sins and apologize to the nation.”

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