Secularism faces a significant challenge as the 'conversion business' booms
An infant is baptized in Bangladesh (Chandan Robert Rebeiro)
It has been almost four months since Protestant pastors Ariful Mondol and Mousumi Mondol were arrested for illegally proselytizing among Muslim villagers in Bangladesh’s northwestern Lalmonirhat district. While the married couple was later released on bail, the case — still ongoing — has taken its toll on Banbhasa village.
Across Bangladesh, clashes over conversion have loomed large. In Lalmonirhat, the first case yet to surface has seen rising tensions and fissures among neighbors.
“I myself have studied in a Church school and most Muslims revere Christians in this area. Now, people are upset over the incident and they are saying bad words against Christians,” said Shaon Firoz, 33, a local leader of the ruling Awami League party.
On November 9 last year, the pastors were arrested while holding a secret mass conversion.
“They attempted to convert a group of 40 Muslim villagers secretly and it made other villagers angry,” said Mahfuzur Rahman, officer in-charge at Banbhasa police station in Lalmonirhat district.
The trial is ongoing and the next hearing will be held this month. If found guilty, the pastors from the fringe Church of God could face up to two years imprisonment for violating the country’s religious freedom law.
Though Islam is officially the state religion, Bangladesh's constitution established the country as a secular state. The charter also protects the right to profess, practice and propagate any religion freely, but bans proselytism.
The pastors have denied any wrongdoing and defended their right to freedom of religion.
“My husband and I came to this area nine months ago and we have converted some people who wanted to become Christians, but none of them have been lured with money or other rewards,” said Mousumi Mondol, 30.
Mondol alleged that a local imam who doesn’t like Christians filed a case against them and provoked local Muslims with a “fabricated lured conversion” story.
The imam refused to meet and talk with ucanews.com, but an aide said the pastors should leave the area immediately or face “dire consequences”.
While the case is running in court, the Muslims who wanted to convert to Christianity have backtracked fearing a backlash from fellow Muslims, according to Rahman.
The story of “lured conversion” has stuck and throughout Banbhasa village, local Muslims have expressed anger over the incident.
“I felt so angry when I heard they wanted to convert 40 Muslims for money. If police hadn't come and arrested them, people would have beaten them up,” said Shafiqul Islam, 45, a Muslim who runs a tea stall in the village.
“If Muslims want to become Christians we have no problem, but we are angry because they have been lured with money and property. They will burn in hell for their sins,” he added.
The Awami League party leader Firoz said some Muslim parents are considering pulling their children from the local Church school fearing they might be “entrapped for conversion”.
One villager, who converted to Christianity a few months ago and spoke on the condition of anonymity, defended his decision saying he was attracted to the teachings of the Bible.
“I know Muslims say bad words about me and my family because we have left Islam to become Christians. We are happy to be Christians but now we are concerned for our safety after the recent incident,” he said.
The incident in Lalmonirhat is unprecedented, but similar cases have happened across rural Bangladesh.
In the Keshobpur area of southern Jessore district, there has been a series of conversions of Muslim villagers by dozens of Protestant groups in recent years.
Rafiq Bhuiyan, 30 who converted in 2008 and became a member of the House Church of Bangladesh, admitted conversion had become something of a business for fringe Christian groups. He has since been fired from his job for reasons he claimed were nepotistic.
“I converted to Christianity with my family because they rewarded me with a house and a job in the Church. Officially all my family members are still Muslims because we have kept our Islamic names in all government documents,” Bhuiyan said.
Rafiq said he previously worked for a pastor for the Church. For his part, he has helped convert about 300 people.
“In Keshobpur, about 700 Muslims became Christians in the past three years thanks to various Protestant groups. Many of them were baptized several times. The more numbers they can show, the more money they can get from foreign donors,” he said.
John Jipu Roy, head of the House Church of Bangladesh, denied such claims saying Rafiq was spreading false information. But interviews with locals back his accounts of the “conversion business”.
Selina Akter, 40, said she has been baptized four times and each time she received 500 taka (US$6.40), traveling allowances and lunch.
“Every time they take our photos and sometimes foreign donors also take part in conversion programs and photo sessions,” she said.
Jiten Sarker, 40, has been baptized six times but he is a member of no specific church.
“I have no problem with baptism because I get 1,000-1,500 taka each time. If I can bring in people for conversion, I can make even more money,” he said.
In Keshobpur, there are 30 Christian churches and almost all are involved in the “conversion business” for money, said Gabriel Biswas, secretary of the Keshobpur unit of the Bangladesh Christian Association, a national rights forum of Christians in Bangladesh.
“Here, we have 30 churches but the number of Christian families is less than 100. People who become Christians for money go back to their own religion within a month or two,” he said.
Police say unless there is violence over conversions there is nothing to worry about.
“We have not yet received any written complaints over the conversions but we have heard people are being lured with money and valuables to convert,” said Mohammad Abdul Jalil, officer in-charge at Keshobpur police station.
Sayedul Islam, imam of a local mosque, said area Muslims have no problem with conversion as it is almost always temporary.
“We have seen for years that most Muslims convert back to Islam soon after. Those who don’t come back we declare them ‘outcast’ from society, but their number is very few,” he said.
Of Bangladesh’s 160 million people about 90 percent are Muslims, eight percent are Hindu and the rest belong to other religions including Buddhism and Christianity. They are about 600,000 Christians in the country including about 350,000 Catholics. There are approximately 200 Protestant churches of all sizes.
Generally, Christians in Bangladesh are highly regarded by the population at large for their significant contributions in the fields of education, health and development, and services to people — mainly to the poor, the underprivileged and helpless.
Christian missioners contributed immensely to Bengali language and literature as they promoted a more colloquial and simplified form of the language instead of using its highly sophisticated form.
However, some Christian leaders warn that Protestant groups engaging in the “conversion business” are tarnishing the image of the religion.
“Bangladesh's constitution guarantees freedom of religion but we should consider the reality before we can evangelize and convert. This is a Muslim-majority country and we all might face problems if anyone hurts the religious sentiments of Muslims,” said Nirmol Rozario, a Catholic and secretary-general of the Bangladesh Christian Association.
Government officials say luring people to convert is a punishable criminal offense.
“We have heard some people are being tempted with money and other incentives to convert, in some cases punishments have been handed down,” said Hasan Jahangir Alam, a joint secretary with the Religious Affairs Ministry.
“This is a secular nation, but the government will take steps against tempting conversion before things get worse,” he said.
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