Policemen guard the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Tejgaon, central Dhaka, on Dec. 14, 2015, following death threats to Catholic priests and protestant pastors amid a rise in Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
From late 2015 through 2016, Barnabas Hembrom spent days and nights fearing that he was going to be murdered by Islamic militants.
Hembrom, 45, a pastor and regional head of the Bangladesh Baptist Church in northern Rangpur division, received death threats three times via the post from a shadowy Islamic militant outfit.
“I stopped going outside church premises to conduct my pastoral services and on my request police were deployed in front of the church gate. I spent many fearful days and sleepless nights. It was the most terrible experience in my 20 years as a pastor,” Hembrom told ucanews.com.
“Today, things have improved greatly thanks to a government crackdown and ongoing monitoring, but fears remain that extremism might re-emerge.”
Hembrom received the first letter on Nov. 25, 2015, and the final one two months later.
“Fathers, priests, eat whatever food you want by Dec. 20 and do not forget to say goodbye to your wives,” the letter read. “The commander of Syria IS has sent a letter to us seeking your severed head. Soon we will send him your head as a gift.
“This time our plan is to kill one by one all those who are preaching Christianity in Bangladesh. Our country will be run only under Islamic laws.”
The first death threat came a week after the Nov. 18 shooting of Italian Catholic missionary Father Pietro Parolari in northern Dinajpur district, for which transnational terrorist outfit Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility.
Earlier, on Oct. 5, Luke Sarkar of the Protestant Faith Bible Church also narrowly escaped death in northern Pabna district after alleged members of the banned Islamic militant group Jamaatul Mujahedhin Bangladesh (JMB) tried to slit his throat.
Then, on June 5, 2016, alleged Islamic militants brutally hacked to death Sunil Gomes, 72, a Catholic, at his grocery shop near Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bonpara, northern Natore district.
During 2015 and 2016, more than two dozen Catholic priests, Protestant ministers and Christian aid workers received death threats similar to Hembrom’s through the mail, text messages and phone calls.
The attacks and deaths threats to Christian leaders, priests, pastors and aid workers were unprecedented in Bangladesh, where Christians are a tiny minority but highly regarded for their significant role in the education, healthcare and social welfare sectors.
The campaign of terror against Christians was a part of an ambitious strategic mission of homegrown Islamic terror outfits to establish Islamic rule in a Muslim-majority Bangladesh, long known for its secular culture and religious pluralism.
Indeed, since 2013 Bangladesh has seen a lethal rise in Islamic extremism.
Local extremists, pledging allegiance to global terror outfits IS and al-Qaeda, have murdered about 50 people from various backgrounds: Christians, Buddhists, atheist bloggers, writers and publishers, liberal academics, gay activists, foreigners, religious and Shia Muslims.
In the worst attack, five militants murdered 20 guests, most of them foreigners, at a cafe in capital Dhaka on July 1, 2016.
In response, the government launched a massive anti-militancy crackdown, leaving some 50 militant leaders and operatives dead. Hundreds more were arrested and put on trial.
Militancy neutralized, fears linger
Bangladesh is a success story in terms of overcoming the threat of extremism, but there is no place for complacency, says Father Anthony Sen, convener of the Justice and Peace Commission at Dinajpur Diocese, which covers Bangladesh’s northern region. The area is known as a hotbed for Islamic extremism.
“We have never seen such savagery in the name of religion in this country and the perpetrators were from this land. That is shocking both for the nation and the government. However, militancy has been neutralized so far, thanks to the government’s efforts,” Father Sen told ucanews.com.
The government continues to prioritize anti-militancy efforts while police continue to guard church premises, acknowledging that the threat has not totally disappeared, the priest noted.
Another sign that fear persists it that all churches ask for police protection during big festivals and also finish evening programs early, even on Christmas and Easter, Father Sen pointed out.
“The government has broken down militant networks by force but it’s not enough,” he said. “Militancy was born and raised with socioeconomic and ideological patronage here in Bangladesh, and as long as these roots are not uprooted there is always a risk for their re-emergence.”
A retired brigadier and Dhaka-based security analyst, M. Shakhawat Hossain, has similar concerns.
“The threat of militancy appears to have dissipated, even if it is not uprooted,” Hossain told ucanews.com. “But we need to keep in mind that militancy took a long time to grow, so it will take some time to die out.
“We are in a much better situation today but everyone, including law enforcers and people at large, need to stay alert.”
Christians stage a protest after the murder of a Catholic grocer, allegedly by Islamic militants, on June 5, 2016 at Bonpara in Natore district of northern Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
An alliance of lawmen and people
It is not only the authorities waging anti-militancy drives — Bangladeshi citizens are also doing their best to eradicate the threat, said Monirul Islam, head of the Bangladesh police force’s Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit.
“Militancy won’t be able to establish strong roots in Bangladesh because people here believe in non-communal culture and religious pluralism,” Islam told ucanews.com. “Besides our regular anti-militancy activities we have also engaged with citizens by spreading awareness and collecting information they give to us. When lawmen and people work together any big threat can be tackled successfully.”
After recent terrorist attacks in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh was also at risk but vigilance from law enforcers averted such threats, he said.
“We believe our strong efforts dismantled the organizational structure of militants in Bangladesh,” Islam added. “We are watchful for people who support extremist ideologies and sympathize with extremists but we have the capacity to stop the re-emergence of militancy locally, nationally and globally.”