Soldiers stand guard near the Holey Artisan cafe in the upscale Gulshan diplomatic area of Dhaka following the July 1 terror attack that left 20 hostages and two policemen dead. (ucanews.com photo by Stephan Uttom)
Church leaders in Bangladesh have urged Muslims to make a stand against terrorism following one of the worst ever terror attacks in the country.
Islamic militants stormed a cafe in the capital Dhaka on July 1 in an attack that left 20 hostages and two policemen dead.
"I have no words to condemn such a barbaric and heinous act, which left so many innocent and valuable lives lost. We are grief-stricken and pray for the victims and their families," Bishop Gervas Rozario, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission said.
"No sane person and no religion can tolerate such a horrendous massacre. Good Muslims now need to take strong stance to save Islam from the grip of terrorism," he said.
A group of gunmen stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery, a cafe popular with foreigners in the upscale Gulshan diplomatic area and took about 40 people hostage at about 9pm local time on July 1.
A 12-hour standoff then ensued which ended when Bangladesh security forces stormed the cafe, killing six attackers and capturing a suspected terrorist.
Thirteen hostages including two Sri Lankan and a Japanese national were rescued, the army said on July 2.
The security forces also found the bodies of 20 hostages including nine Italians, seven Japanese, three Bangladeshis and one Indian. Most had been hacked to death.
The father of one survivor told reporters the militants killed those who couldn’t recite a verse from the Quran.
The two policemen died in an earlier failed attempt to rescue the hostages.
The so-called Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack soon after the crisis began and published several images of scenes inside the cafe, according to U.S.-based SITE intelligence group, which monitors jihadists activities online.
Inspector-General of Police A.K.M. Shahidul Haque on July 3 could not confirm an IS-link.
He said the attackers were known militants from a banned local group, Jamaatul Mujahedin Bangladesh, which has been blamed for a recent series of attacks on religious minorities and liberal intellectuals.
"All were Bangladeshi citizens ... educated people from rich families. They were derailed youths," Haque said.
Pope Francis condemns and expresses condolence
In a telegram message to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on July 3, Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin said Pope Francis expressed condolences to the victims and condemned such "barbarous acts."
"Deeply saddened by the senseless violence perpetrated against innocent victims in Dhaka, His Holiness Pope Francis expresses heartfelt condolences and condemns such barbarous acts as offences against God and humanity," the message read.
Relatives of hostages weep near near the Holey Artisan café in upscale Gulshan diplomatic area in Dhaka. (ucanews.com photo by Stephan Uttom)
The nation in mourning
Condemning the attack Prime Minister Hasina vowed to root out terrorism in an address to the nation on July 2 and declared two-days of mourning for the victims.
"What kind of Muslims are these militants that they are killing during the Holy month of Ramadan? There can not be any rationale behind such attacks, those who did it have no religion," Hasina said.
She called on the country to get unite in the battle against terrorism.
"By eliminating terrorists … we will establish Bangladesh as a peaceful state...no conspiracy can hinder our advancement, lets work together, putting behind our all differences, to establish a secure Bangladesh," she said.
The prime minister was to lead tributes and mourning activities for the slain victims at the army stadium in Dhaka July 4.
Special prayers were to be held in mosques, temples, churches and pagodas across the country.
During Sunday services on July 3, Catholics and Protestants prayed for the victims and their families.
"Bangladesh has a long tradition of religious tolerance and harmony, but this kind of attacks puts it at stake," said Father Joyanto S. Gomes, secretary of Catholic Bishops’ Social Communication Commission.
"The government and all people need to make a strong commitment and act, so extremism can be uprooted, and people can live in peace," he said.
Policemen help corden off the area near the Holey Artisan café in the diplomatic area of Dhaka following the terror attack on July 1. (ucanews.com photo by Stephan Uttom)
A new dimension of militant terrorism in Bangladesh
Moderate Muslim-majority Bangladesh has seen a surge Islamic militancy since 2013.
At least 40 people including foreigners, atheist bloggers, liberal intellectuals, gays, and members of religious minorities including Christians have been killed.
The IS and al-Qaeda have claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the government has repeatedly denied the presence of these groups in Bangladesh. The government blame the attacks on home grown militants, saying they are being backed by opposition parties.
Recently, the government conducted an anti-militancy drive arresting over 11,000 people, but only snaring 194 alleged militants, critics said.
Most attacks involved machete assaults on individuals. However, the July 1 attack was very different and well coordinated.
In this case the attackers, brandishing assault rifles, grenades and swords, stormed a cafe in one of the most secure areas in the country where most foreign embassies are located.
"This attack has shocked people as it adds a new dimension to terrorism in Bangladesh," Abdur Rob Khan, a Dhaka-based security analyst told BBC Bengali radio in an interview.
"For some time we have heard IS wants to gain a foothold in the country, and what we have seen here is an act very similar to the Paris and Istanbul terror attacks," he said.
"Unless the government increases security measures and intelligence efforts to crackdown on militancy, there will be more such attacks anywhere in the country," he said.
To seriously tackle militancy the government needs to come out of its state of denial and get a grip on reality, Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune newspaper said.
"The longer the government remains in denial, the bigger the hit to its credibility... The world and the people of Bangladesh are watching," Soban said in a recent editorial.
Christians living in fear
The attack has also raised fears among the minority Christian community, which accounts for less than half a percent of the population.
"There are serious reasons for fear among the Christian community as they [militants] have killed non-Muslims and Christians," said Wiliam Proloy Samadder, vice-president of Bangladesh Baptist Church.
Police protection and personal safety measures can’t root out terrorism but a ‘social movement’ can, he said.
"Everyone needs to be involved…. We all need to make a commitment to resist terrorism using family, social and religious values," he added.
Bishop Rozario says there’s ‘no security’ for Christians in Bangladesh.
"Militants killed foreigners for failing to recite verses from the Quran. There is every reason to fear the same thing might happen to Christians in Bangladesh, as they are small in number and powerless. We don’t have the power to press the government for security unless Western countries intervene," the prelate said.
Instead simply denying the presence of IS, the government must check the backers of militants who follow IS-ideology, Bishop Rozario said.