Christian unity is a matter of survival in Bangladesh

Christians must unite against fundamentalism both internal and external to remain empowered
Christian unity is a matter of survival in Bangladesh

Catholics pray at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in central Dhaka in this file photo. Catholics and Protestants in Bangladesh have a healthy relationship but church leaders have called for even stronger unity. (Photo by Chandan Robert Rebeiro)

Christians in Bangladesh have been organizing special prayers and gatherings to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Jan. 18-25, to prioritize and promote unity among Christian denominations.

Bangladesh's Christians are a tiny minority: less than half a percent of 160 million people in the Muslim-majority country. Of an estimated 500,000 Christians, the majority, about 350,000, are Catholics.

Since the late 1960s, following the Second Vatican Council, Bangladesh bishops promoted interreligious dialogue and ecumenism through the Commission for Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue.

Meanwhile, the National Council of Churches in Bangladesh, a coalition of 15 Protestant churches, also promoted unity and fraternity. The National Fellowship of Churches, Bangladesh is another major Protestant church forum comprising 19 member churches.    

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh and the Protestant fellowships formed a common forum in 2011: The United Forum of Churches that draws representatives from all member associations.

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On the forefront of this common forum was Archbishop Patrick D'Rozario of Dhaka, now the country's first cardinal.


Christians take part in an ecumenical Easter Sunrise Program in front of National Parliament building in Dhaka in this 2011. (Photo by Chandan Robert Reberio)


'A beautiful thing'

"Church leaders have felt the importance of good inter-denominational relations because we believe and accept that we are all one, baptized in the name of the same God," said Oblate Father Ajit Victor Costa, secretary of the Catholic bishops' Commission for Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue.

"Protestant leaders and community members join our prayers and gatherings and we join their programs as well. We walk and work together. This is a beautiful thing," said Father Costa.

Amid a recent upsurge in Islamic militancy targeting secular writers, liberal activists and religious minorities, Christians need to be more united than ever, he said.

"We can fight the evil forces strongly if we are united and empowered," said Father Costa.  

During times of natural disaster, political upheaval and national crisis, Catholics and Protestants have worked hand in hand said Reverend David A. Das, a minister in the Bangladesh Baptist Church.

"We have worked together and protested when the Christian community faced repression — be it a property-grabbing issue or a religiously motivated attack," Reverend Das told  

Reverend Das said that churches in Bangladesh are currently lobbying the government against proposed amendments to the 2011 Foreign Donations Regulation Act.

Among the law's requirements is a burdensome approval process for non-governmental organizations that demands multiple clearances for foreign-funded projects, a lack of clear time frames for approving projects and vague grounds for denying approval.

The law intends to treat churches as NGOs, which could make things hazardous for churches in Bangladesh, as almost all of them depend on foreign donations.

"Churches are religious organizations, not social organizations or NGOs. So, we are working together to ensure that churches are treated separately and allowed to enjoy full freedom and rights," Reverend Das added.


Proselytizing is a threat to unity

Aggressive and unethical proselytizing by fringe churches and evangelical groups poses a danger to Christians and threatens unity among churches, Christian officials said.

Though Islam is 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 proselytizing.

"There are some small churches who convert people by luring them with money or other financial incentives. This is a dangerous trend, which divides the Christian community and makes Christians the target of religious fundamentalists," said Reverend Philip Biswas, a minister of the Church of Bangladesh.

"Christian churches need to be more aware and united in order to resist illegal practices," he added.

Father Ajit Victor Costa had similar thoughts.         

"Only a few groups are involved in daring and aggressive evangelical efforts which give the whole Christian community in Bangladesh a bad name. This is unacceptable and a matter of disgrace," the Catholic priest said.


Breaking barriers

Despite relative harmony among churches in Bangladesh, there are barriers against Christian unity in the country.

One thorny issue is inter-church marriage between Catholics and Protestants because the Catholic Church follows its own system to solemnize inter-denominational marriages.

"If a Protestant wants to get married to a Catholic, they must follow the Catholic Church's regulations. They must accept a Catholic matrimony. This kind of superior-inferior situation casts a blow to the generally healthy relationship between Catholics and Protestants in the country," said Reverend Biswas, the Church of Bangladesh minister.

Reverend Biswas also pointed out that allegations such as forced conversions and the monetary irregularities of some fringe Protestant churches also creates suspicion and division among Christians.     

"If we want to be truly united, we need to break the barriers that hold us back from being in communion and solidarity," he said.

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