The Catholic church in Bandarban, southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts is at the center of an anti-Christian campaign (Photo: Chittagong Catholic Diocese website)
Silence is often prudent but at other times it’s plain foolish, as is the case with the Catholic Church and Christians in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), where their deathly silence in response to a long-running anti-Christian campaign is working against them.
In March and April, local newspapers and online media ran a cooked-up story against priests and religious brothers from the Queen of Fatima Catholic Church in Bandarban, the largest and one of the oldest Catholic churches in the CHT.
The report alleged that the priests and religious were sexually abusing tribal girls residing in a Church-run hostel.
To escape the abuses, some 71 girls fled the hostel one night, prompting Church leaders to pay off local officials to cover everything up, it claimed.
The girls actually fled in protest against the woman in charge of the hostel, a tribal woman who the girls say treated them badly. They absconded after several pleas to have the woman replaced fell on deaf ears. The girls later returned after the woman was dismissed.
The concocted abuse story came from local journalists looking to extort money from Church officials and was encouraged by local Muslim leaders who have a history of anti-Christian sentiment.
This is not an isolated case, but part of a game that’s been played against the Church and Christians for nearly a decade.
During this time, several Islamist and mainstream newspapers have run fabricated reports accusing Christian missioners of converting thousands of tribals with the lure of money and plotting to turn the CHT into an independent Christian country like Timor-Leste.
The reports also alleged that several Western countries were funding Christian NGO activities to change the religious demography of the CHT to fulfill this agenda.
Church leaders and development activists have told me privately that government intelligence agents have paid them visits asking them how many Christians were in the area and how Christian NGOs were being funded.
Last year, the Hefazat-e-Islam militant group staged two rallies in Dhaka to make 13 demands. Most Christians failed to notice that one of them was a crackdown on “unlawful activities by Christian missioners and NGOs in the CHT”.
Throughout this time, Church leaders have remained silent. They have neither spoken to the authorities nor refuted the baseless claims in the mainstream press. They also didn’t opt for official complaints and protests, not even with regard to the Hefazat-e-Islam rallies.
The CHT, which borders India and Myanmar, is the only mountainous region of Bangladesh. This strategically important area is home to more than 12 indigenous tribes, mostly Buddhist, who have lived there for centuries and been socially and economically neglected for decades.
These peace loving people have seen the systematic destruction of their culture and livelihood since the 1970s when the government started changing the local demography by resettling landless Bengali Muslims who started grabbing tribal lands. The result has been ongoing sectarian conflict in these hills.
Tribals resisted the influx and, with latent support from India, formed a militia group to fight the settlers.
In response, the government turned the area into a military zone. For more than two decades, a bloody bush war between the army and militants claimed hundreds of lives until it ended with the CHT Peace Accord in 1997, which is still to be implemented. To this day, the region is heavily militarized with some 500 army camps.
Christian missioners arrived in the 1950s, and today Christians account for less than three percent of the region’s 1.6 million people.
The Muslim population, however, has increased from less than three percent in 1947 to more than 48 percent today. Tribals are still larger in number, but they are marginal in city centers and most businesses are controlled by Bengalis.
With such a small Christian presence, claims that missioners and NGO’s are trying to create another Timor-Leste are nothing more than ill intentioned fairy tales and simply not possible .
Yet, the rumors are rife and are being fed by local Bengali Muslim groups, who are aggressively anti-tribal.
They are the force behind the occupation of tribal lands by Muslim settlers. They are also backed by civil and military officials, and Islamic fundamentalist groups like Hefazat. All are trying to discredit the Church to divert national and international attention away from the grim political and rights situation for tribals in the CHT.
The war is over, but sectarian clashes between tribals and Muslims and rival tribal groups are still common.
According to a local rights group, Muslims killed 11 tribal men, raped 15 tribal women and burned down more than 100 tribal homes last year. Rights activists also accuse the government and army of keeping unrest alive to legitimize the militarization of the area.
International rights groups including Amnesty International have reported gross human rights violations by Muslim settlers and soldiers on tribal people. These include murder, torture, arson and rape.
Environmental groups allege the region is facing an environmental disaster because of deforestation and tobacco cultivation by the settlers.
Foreigners are generally not allowed in the CHT; but if they are it is usually under close surveillance. It is not because armed tribal groups might kidnap them for ransom, but mostly to stop them seeing what really goes on there.
Like in other parts of the country, Catholics and Protestants have set up dozens of schools, vocational centers, health clinics, and conducted development activities in the CHT to help tribals, non-tribals, Christians and non-Christians alike.
In most other places, Christians are held in high esteem by Muslims for their contributions in the education, health and development sectors, but in the CHT they are being vilified.
One reason is the activities of Christian missioners who have made tribal people more aware of their rights and more vocal.
The Bandarban Church incident is the most recent example of this vilification and could have been a lot worse if local Muslims had believed the stories that were told.
A 1998 mob attack by Muslims on several churches and Christian institutions in the Luxmibazar district of Dhaka during a land dispute between a Catholic school and a local mosque should serve as a gentle reminder as to how vulnerable Christians are.
Church leaders should realize that Christian haters consider their silence as weakness. They should learn from the recent attempt to stoke anti-Christian feelings in the CHT and act strongly and accordingly.
If they don’t take this seriously, they can be assured that the worst is yet to come.
The Third Eye is a Dhaka-based journalist and commentator