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Easter passes in celebrations and silence in Bangladesh

Mahalis pray that religious customs survive as lack of a public holiday makes students choose education over tradition

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 Easter passes in celebrations and silence in Bangladesh

Catholics attend a Living Way of the Cross program at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Dhaka in 2011. Easter is off the radar in most parts of Bangladesh, which only recognizes Christmas as a public holiday. (Photo by Chandan Robert Rebeiro/ucanews.com)

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Like many Christian university students in Bangladesh, Maria Marandy, an ethnic Mahali Catholic from northern Dinajpur Diocese, faces a tough choice at Easter: respect the academic calendar or skip classes to reunite with family.

"Easter is a time for spiritual renewal, and family and community reunions, so I never want to miss it. But that happened twice because I had exams knocking at the door, which was sad," Marandy, who studies philosophy at Dhaka University, told ucanews.com.

She left her family to move to the capital in 2014 and says she often has to spend Holy Week alone as Christmas is the only Christian festival recognized as a public holiday in Bangladesh.

In contrast to Christmas, when many people join Christian friends and neighbors at seasonal feasts, and Christmas lights brighten up churches, shops and hotels, Easter passes quietly in most parts of the country.

However, it takes on a special meaning for Marandy's predominantly Christian ethnic group, which is concentrated in the north of the country.

Easter Sunday is a day of forgiveness, family reunions, cultural feasts and reconciliation for Mahali Christians, she said.

"After Sunday Mass, all of the villagers gather in one place, where they seek forgiveness for the wrongs they have done to each other over the year, and reconcile. Then they eat together and enjoy cultural shows," Marandy added.

"Like Jesus, Mahalis also rise from their old selves on Easter Sunday, so the feast has more significance to us than Christmas."

Traditions rekindled, faith renewed

Sagar Sonjib Corraya, a 42-year-old Bengali Catholic, has been living in the capital since 1993. He hails from the Bhawal region of Dhaka Archdiocese, one of the country's oldest Catholic strongholds.

Corraya feeds his family by working for the Dhaka-based Weekly Pratibeshi, the only Catholic magazine that enjoys nationwide distribution.

For him, Easter is a time to renew his faith and celebrate time-honored cultural traditions with his kin in Gazipur district of central Bangladesh.

Protestants take part in an Easter Sunrise liturgy in central Dhaka in 2018. (Photo by Piyas Biswas/ucanews.com)


"Ever since I was a child, I've enjoyed our traditional way of observing Easter — attending a liturgy for four days and reuniting with relatives after a long absence," he said.

"We commemorate how Jesus died and then rose from the dead three days later to free us of our sins. This is the foundation of our faith." 

Catholics in Bhawal's eight parishes eat a special platter of parched rice, molasses, sweets, custard and bananas on Easter Sunday — a centuries-old tradition that is believed to have migrated over from Hinduism.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, European missionaries evangelized in various parts of present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Most of the early converts were lower-caste Hindus.

"This Easter platter is very unique and we are proud to keep alive this age-old tradition passed down from our forefathers," Corraya said. 

Silent night, holy night

In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Christians account for less than half a percent of its population of 160 million people.

Most of the country's 600,000 Christians are Catholics concentrated in eight dioceses.

Despite their small numbers, Christians are highly regarded by people of other faiths due to their contributions to education, health care and social development.

For years, Christian groups have urged the government to list Easter Sunday as a national holiday, but to no avail.

However, the campaign experienced something of a breakthrough this year as the Education Ministry declared it a holiday, bringing cheers from Christian students and their parents.

Speculating on the rationale behind the reversal, observers note how the Islamic feast of Shab-e-Barat (Night of Emancipation) falls on April 21 this year. Such proximity made it impossible for officials to ignore the Christian holiday, they contend

"I hope the government will realize one day that Easter Sunday is major religious feast for Christians and give it its due," said Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi.

For years, Protestants organized a popular Sunrise Liturgy on Easter Sunday in front of the nation's parliament, an event that drew crowds of thousands.

However, the government withdrew its permission for the program in 2016 citing "security concerns" amid a spike in Islamic militancy, according to William Proloy Samadder, the secretary of Bangladesh Baptist Church.

The liturgy now takes place not on center stage but in the wings — at a small playground in central Dhaka, with a significantly reduced attendance.

"It was a beautiful public display of Christian devotion to God, but we can't do it anymore due to the restrictions," Samadder said. "We still participate in other events, though, to show our fraternity with our brothers and sisters."

The other programs include a pre-dawn, open-air Mass and a common meal organized by another Protestant group in the teeming capital.

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