Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her party, the Awami League, have become intolerant of criticism since winning their third straight election in 2018. (Photo by Prakash Singh/AFP)
Every time users log into Facebook they are prompted to post “what’s on your mind” or “what have you been up to.”
Christmas is only a few days away and the year is diminishing fast so it is a good time to reflect on what Bangladesh, and the Church in particular, have encountered in 2019 and what 2020 might have in store.
Highs and lows of Christians
In February, the Church celebrated 500 years of Christianity in Bangladesh following the arrival of European Catholics and missionaries at Chittagong in 1518.
Thousands of Catholics and non-Christians, as well as all the country’s bishops plus some from India and Myanmar, joined the celebrations in the coastal city.
The event gave the Church an uplift because even many local Catholics didn’t know of the Church’s glorious history in Bangladesh, and how the blood and sweat of early missionaries and martyrs laid the foundation for the growth of faith.
The same month, Christians cheered when a Bengali Catholic lawyer, Gloria Jharna Sarker from the ruling Awami League party, became the country’s first female Christian parliamentarian. She is the second Christian MP after Jewel Areng, an ethnic Garo Catholic.
Sarker has since been vocal about minority rights in her speeches and activities, and increased her visibility for the welfare of the minority, a welcome role she is expected to continue in the coming year.
In March, the alleged murder of a young Catholic woman by her husband and in-laws triggered unprecedented street protests and social media uproar. Police arrested the suspected killers and the case showed that Christians are not immune from ugly cases of violence against women.
In May, Barishal Catholic Diocese faced a media and rights backlash when a Catholic writer and poet, Henry Sawpon, was sued by the Church authority for “defamatory writings” against clergy and religious, including the local bishop. A massive outcry over his arrest forced the Church to drop the case and free him.
What it did, however, was highlight the Church authorities’ dislike for criticism, an attitude strikingly similar to the ruling government and one that is unlikely to change in the near future.
In October, a long-running land dispute between two Catholic families in Mongla, southern Bangladesh, turned ugly and led to a Catholic school teacher being seriously injured.
While most land disputes involve majority Muslims against religious and ethnic minorities, the case of two Catholic families at war with each other showed that an increasing number of Christians are also caught up in them and that the Church is powerless to act.
In November, Dhaka Archdiocese opened the 20-bed St. John Vianney Hospital in Dhaka, the fourth Church-run hospital in the country. This added to the Church’s ongoing health ministry in the form of four hospitals and 66 health clinics, mostly in rural areas. In 2020, the Church aims to develop St. John Vianney into a 200-bed hospital while projects to improve Church’s health facilities across the country are also underway.
The same month, a national interfaith conference by the Church drew leaders and activists from various faiths. Attendees vowed to combat extremism through further interfaith gatherings and dialogue programs.
Politics and rights
Since the 1990s, the center-left Awami League (AL) of Sheikh Hasina and its arch rival, the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia, have swapped power.
In recent times, however, politics in Bangladesh has been a one-sided affair — the AL has been in power since 2008 and has manipulated all state machineries to cling to power in the 2014 and 2018 elections.
During this time, the BNP has broken down due to organizational weakness, internal feuds and constant government suppression, including the jailing of Khaleda Zia for alleged corruption.
Many feared that the BNP would boycott the Dec. 30, 2018 election as it did the previous one and wage deadly street protests. However, the party contested the poll with its Islamist allies, winning only nine out 300 seats as AL was returned in a landslide. Media reports suggested the election was widely rigged and the BNP had no power to stop AL winning its third straight victory.
This one-sided election has resulted in a parliament without an effective opposition, a government that allows no dissent and a state that has become increasingly authoritarian.
The political landscape has therefore been largely incident-free, except for sporadic infighting between factions of the ruling party and its allies.
Frustrated and dismayed by allegations of corruption and criminal activity by some of his associates, Prime Minister Hasina ordered the arrest and punishment of some influential leaders of AL’s youth and student wings, the Jubo League and Chhatra League. The crackdown saw several kingpins in the illegal casino, drugs and arms underworld arrested and put on trial.
With the next election not due until December 2023 and the BNP still wounded by its heavy losses, the new year is expected to be largely peaceful again.
Under the AL, human rights became increasingly neglected in this namesake democracy in 2019.
Hundreds of people became victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance by lawmen in the so-called anti-drug crackdown and purge against the AL’s political opponents.
Despite the slowing of assassinations due to criticism at home and abroad, they are likely to continue, albeit at a reduced pace.
Repressive laws have been enacted and abused to intimidate and harass journalists and gag the freedom of expression of rights activists and government critics.
This sad human rights environment is not expected to improve in 2020.
Religious minorities have had relatively a peaceful year, save for some isolated cases of attacks by Muslims, mostly stemming from land and political disputes.
In April, a Catholic priest, Samson Marnady, filed a murder case against a former ruling party parliamentarian, Abul Kalam Azad, for killing his brother Ovidio Maranday, in 2014. Predictably, however, the case got nowhere due to Azad’s political clout and it is difficult to see the case being revived.
In July, police filed charges against 90 people for killing and violently evicting thousands of ethnic Santal Christians in Gaibandha district in the north. Tribal leaders rejected the charges, some of the main accused, including former MP Azad, were reprieved and ethnic Christians’ call for justice and compensation is unlikely to be meted out.
In October, a hate crime riot took place in the Bhola district of southern Bangladesh, when the Facebook account of a local Hindu man was hacked to circulate posts defaming Islam. Hardline Islamists demonstrated violently on the streets, attacking minority Hindus and police. During the ensuing clashes four rioters were shot dead and dozens of people, including police, were injured.
Similar cases of hate crimes targeting minority Buddhists and Hindus have occurred four times since 2012, but justice remains elusive. Silent religious bigots will continue to rear their ugly heads whenever they find an opportunity.
Despite neutralizing deadly Islamic militancy by force in recent years, Bangladesh has failed to promote an effective counter-ideology to tackle extremism. It would therefore be no surprise if some Islamic militants carried out a terror attack in the coming year.
Good and bad things happen in every place, every year. As people bid farewell to another year, people including Christians in Bangladesh can only hope for better. In reality, however, they should prepare for the worst.
Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist for ucanews, based in Dhaka. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of ucanews.