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Catholics appeal to Bangladesh PM to help return 'seized land'

Influential Buddhist monk accused of stealing 40 hectares from poor Christians

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Catholics appeal to Bangladesh PM to help return 'seized land'

Priests, nuns and lay Catholics stage a human chain program in the Bangladeshi town of Bandarban on July 31 to demand the return of land allegedly grabbed by a local Buddhist monk. (Photo Supplied by Chittagong Archdiocese)

Ethnic indigenous Catholics joined by priests, nuns, Muslims and Buddhists, have staged a protest rally and submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to get back land allegedly grabbed by a Buddhist monk in southeast Bangladesh.

About 200 people, mostly Catholics from ethnic Tripura and Marma communities, staged a human chain program in front of the Press Club in the Bandarban district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) on July 31.

They also submitted a memorandum through the district’s chief government officer to seek PM Hasina’s intervention in returning the land.

Protesters have demanded the return of 40 hectares of land, including 2.3 hectares of land that they said is owned by the local Catholic Church.

Father Jerome Rozario, secretary of The Land Commission in Chittagong Archdiocese, claimed a local Buddhist monk, U Cha Hla Bhante, had forcibly grabbed the land in 2014 and that most of the victims were poor ethnic Christians.

“We have asked for support from government officials, taken legal action and held press conferences but Bhante is very powerful, so nothing is working. So, now we are appealing the PM to pay attention to our suffering,” the priest told ucanews.com.

The Church bought 5.7 acres land of St. Paul’s Church in Roangchaari, a mission center under Queen of Fatima Catholic Church in Bandarban district, which was grabbed by the monk on May 3, 2014, the priest alleged.

A local Catholic filed a court case to reclaim the land in 2014, which ended with a verdict in favor of the Church.

However, the Church lost the case after Bhante filed a review petition. Then the Church filed an appeal against the verdict, which is still pending at the court.

Dilip Barua, a local Buddhist politician and social activist, said that Bhante’s muscle flexing and land-grabbing spree had tarnished image of the local Buddhist community.

“For years Buddhists have fought to get their land back from Bengali Muslim settlers; now, ironically, a Buddhist cleric has become an oppressor due to his greed for land, money and power. This is a blow to a long-held harmonious relationship among various faith groups on the hills,” Barua told ucanews.com.

U Cha Hla Bhante brushed aside the land-grabbing allegation against him as “false and fabricated.”

“I didn’t grab any land by force. All the land I own was legally purchased,” he told ucanews.com. “An interested party is spreading false and fabricated propaganda against me for its personal interests. If anyone with valid legal documents lays a claim on my land, I will immediately return it without hesitation.”

The CHT, comprising the hilly forested districts of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari, is Bangladesh’s only mountainous region, bordered by India and Myanmar.

The region is home to dozens of ethnic indigenous groups, most of them Buddhists but with some Christians.

The CHT has more than 20,000 Catholics belonging to ethnic minority communities among 30,000-plus Catholics in Chittagong Archdiocese.

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