Rahima Begum, 55, a poor Muslim slum dweller in Dhaka on Nov. 26. Bangladesh’s poor, oppressed minorities and indigenous communities hope Pope Francis’ upcoming visit would promote harmony, peace and human rights. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Behind expensive high-rise apartments in central Dhaka, Bangladeshi Rahima Begum lives in a shantytown with her husband and two sons.
An eight-foot by six-foot rented room has since 2012 been their home in the Bangla Motor district of the capital, only a few kilometers from venues for the visit of Pope Francis Nov. 30-Dec. 2.
Rahima hopes the pope's presence will bring increased focus on the miserable plight of people such as herself.
However, she has no choice other than to put up with a sewer flowing near her shanty that brings an appalling stench as well as the risk of disease.
About 2,000 people live on less than an acre of land, all of them poor Muslims like Rahima.
Rahima’s family lost their home in the Madaripur district of south-central Bangladesh due to devastating river erosion.
Rahima does not know a great deal about the pontiff, but has learned that he criticized poor working conditions in garment factories.
"Our political leaders and the government always promise development, but they don’t do anything for us," Rahima said.
In recent decades, the economy of Bangladesh has grown, but about a quarter of the country’s 160 million people still live below the poverty threshold.
According to the World Bank, about 40 percent of 15 million people in Dhaka are slum dwellers.
Muslim-majority Bangladesh has long been considered a model of religious harmony and pluralism, but in recent times there has been a rise in Islamic militant violence.
Probir Chowdhury is a Hindu leader from Nasirnagar in Brahmanbaria district, where Islamist mobs attacked Hindu communities in October last year.
Chowdhury hopes Pope Francis will invigorate Bangladesh by promoting harmony and peace.
"Pope Francis is a supreme spiritual leader and we are honored to have him here," Chowdhury said.
About 3 million people of Bangladesh’s 160 million population belong to about 45 ethnic minority groups, who are mostly non-Muslims such as Buddhists, Hindus and Christians.
These communities have all faced various forms of violence from politically and numerically dominant Muslims, mostly over land and political issues.
Ripon Albinus Lakra, 25, an Oraon indigenous Catholic from northern Dinajpur district, is optimistic about Pope Francis’ visit.
"Pope Francis is a great lover of humanity and marginalized communities are very close to his heart," Lakra, director of a church-run student hostel told ucanews.com.