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Catholic Bangladeshis struggle to protect their homes

Disputes over land and property is a problem for both religious and ethnic minorities

ucanews.com reporters, Dhaka

ucanews.com reporters, Dhaka

Published: April 27, 2017 04:22 AM GMT

Updated: April 27, 2017 04:58 AM GMT

Catholic Bangladeshis struggle to protect their homes

Family members of Philip Arinda (extreme right) in front of their ancestral house at Nazirpur village, Gournadi, southern Barisal district on Dec. 25, 2015. The family is currently fighting to get back the property after it was occupied by local Muslims. (Photo supplied)

For four months a Catholic family from southern Bangladesh has been struggling to regain their ancestral property after it was occupied by two Muslim men — a common story for minorities in the country.

Muslim brothers, Abdul Hakim Bepary and Alauddin Bepary, allegedly broke into the house owned by Philip Arinda, at Nazirpur village in Gournadi area of Barisal on Jan. 9. The family were out on a Christmas holiday at the time.

"We wanted to sell the land and the Muslims were interested. Later, we changed our minds and they became angry. They were out looking for a chance to occupy the property by force," Arinda told ucanews.com.

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A week later, Arinda's family filed a case with local police and the two invaders were arrested. But local politicians from the ruling Awami League party arranged an arbitration meeting to find an "amicable solution" and paved the way to release the men.

"We trusted local leaders but didn't realize it was a stage-managed play to have them released. After they were freed the brothers occupied the house again and claimed we sold it," he said.  

The brothers managed to break the locks of the house which was empty because Arinda's relatives who were living there had vacated fearing threats and abuse by local Muslims, he said.

The two brothers forged a land purchase document and bribed local politicians and police to win their backing, Arinda said.

In exchange for helping them get their property back the family were forced to pay 11,000 taka (US$138) to local politicians and 5,000 taka (US$63) to police but nothing worked out, he said.

On Jan. 31, the family filed a criminal case in the local court but police allegedly delayed the investigation.

"Local politicians are pressing for more money and the police have not submitted a report which is delaying the verdict. We are doubtful if the police will present the truth," he said.

Alauddin Bepary, one of the accused, denied the allegations. "The complainant's uncle took 400,000 taka (US$ 5,000) from me in exchange for the property but now they have reversed the decision and I have occupied the property so I can get back my money," Bepary said.

"A court case is ongoing and we will accept the verdict when it comes," he said.

Muhammad Iqbal, investigating police officer, denied allegations of bribery and claimed a "neutral probe" is underway.

"We have almost finished the probe and we found the property of the minority family has been forcibly occupied. The occupiers failed to produce valid documents. We will submit the report soon and it is then up to the court," the officer said.

Father Mintu Boiragi, parish priest of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Gournadi, said the local church was helpless. "We met police and local politicians for a just solution but it seems the Muslims won't settle for justice. The court is the last straw of hope now," the priest said.

 

A common problem

Disputes over land and property is a problem for both religious and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh, a land-hungry nation where 160 million people are crammed into a 147,570-square-kilometer area.

About 75 percent of an estimated 3 million pending court cases are related to land disputes, according to the Association of Land Reform and Development, a Dhaka-based advocacy group.

In this low-lying delta country, shifting rivers, an outdated land record system, widespread forgery and corruption are blamed for many of the disputes.

"Our land laws and legal system are outdated and discriminatory; a legacy of the British colonial era where the rich and powerful were favored over the poor and marginalized. The legal system is lengthy and expensive so the poor and the powerless are often denied justice," said Shamshul Huda, the association's executive director.

 

Tribal Santal Catholics in Govindaganj, northern Gainbandha district eat lunch under open sky on Nov. 16, 2016, days after they were forcibly evicted. (ucanews.com photo)

 

Land and property disputes haunt both Bengali and tribal Christians across Bangladesh, said Father Albert Thomas Rozario, a Supreme Court lawyer and former secretary of the Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission.

"In many places, Christians face threats and abuse from Muslims over land and property disputes. Often court cases linger for years while victims cry in vain while land grabbers wield political and financial power," Father Rozario said.

The priest pointed out the case of Abraham Cruze, a Catholic, who was allegedly forced off his property in Dhaka on Oct. 15, 2015. Behind the forced eviction was Hazi Saifullah, a local Muslim who is linked to a local unit of the ruling Awami League Party.

"We have a court verdict in favor of Cruze but he failed to get back the property because of a lack of cooperation from police. Saifullah continues his occupancy using his political and financial clout," said Father Rozario, parish priest of St. Joseph's Church in Savar, near Dhaka.

Last November, the largely Christian Santal tribal people were attacked by thugs hired by a sugar mill over a long-standing land dispute

The church offers legal and financial support to Catholics fighting legal battles through Justice and Peace Commissions and Caritas regional offices in eight Catholic dioceses across the country.

Father Rozario said their efforts are often not sufficient and an alternative plan is underway. "The church is considering forming a common forum … to fight land and property grabbing," the priest said.

The concerted effort to fight land grabbing would be more than a welcome move for Bangladesh's Christians. Until then, families like that of Philip Arinda's pin their hopes on the judiciary.

"The police, local leaders and administration have denied us justice so our last resort is the court. We hope the court will deliver justice for us at the end," Arinda said.  

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