ucanews.com reporter, Dhaka
Updated: January 12, 2017 09:52 AM GMT
Indigenous woman with their children in Bandarban district of Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh in this 2014 file photo. Islamic extremists are trafficking children and forcibly converting them. (Photo by ucanews.com)
A Catholic priest and a human rights activist have expressed alarm over the forced religious conversion of indigenous children by Islamic extremists in the tribal populated Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh.
Islamic hardliners have been allegedly running a trafficking ring that targets poor Christian, Buddhist and Hindu families, offering a better education and lifestyle to families, but then forcibly converting the children in madrassas (Islamic seminaries) without the knowledge of their parents, according to Bangladesh police.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts bordering India and Myanmar, is the only mountainous region of Bangladesh and is home to more than 12 indigenous tribes, mostly Buddhist, who have lived there for centuries, but long been socially and economically neglected by the government.
Over the past seven years, 72 children from various indigenous groups have been rescued from traffickers, police say.
In the latest campaign, police in Bandarban, one of the three Chittagong Hill Tracts districts, rescued four children from a hotel and arrested two men for alleged trafficking on Jan 1.
"The children were aged 9-13 and we have handed them over to their parents. A trafficking case has been filed against the suspects and investigations are underway," Rafiq Ullah, officer in-charge at Bandarban police station, told ucanews.com.
The officer admitted allegations of trafficking and forced-conversion by Islamic extremists was nothing new.
"Over the years, we have rescued children and arrested people involved in trafficking and forced-conversions. We will continue busting this crime ring," he said.
Holy Cross Father Dominic Sarkar, parish priest of Queen of Fatima Catholic Church in Bandarban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, said the church is anxious over the trafficking and forced-conversion of children.
"We are really worried and frustrated with the alarming presence of Islamic radicals who are seducing and duping poor, illiterate and simple indigenous people and carrying out forced conversions. They are mostly targeting Tripura communities as they are largely Christian," Father Sarkar told ucanews.com.
Unless the local administration and law enforcement take the issue seriously, children would remain vulnerable to extremists and their wider agenda, he said.
"The radicals want to brainwash children, their parents and entire villages, so they have new recruits for extremist activities. Rescuing children is just the tip of the iceberg. Police need to crack down hard," Father Sarkar said.
Nemkim Baum, head of the Bolipara Women Welfare Society, a local NGO partner of the Bangladesh Child Rights Forum, said extremists are exploiting the simplicity, poverty and lack of awareness among indigenous peoples.
"This is one of country’s remotest places, where development and economic prosperity are still a far cry away. So when people have slightest opportunity for prosperity, they don’t hesitate to accept the offer. This is how Islamists target indigenous peoples," Baum told ucanews.com.
Baum noted that no one organization could tackle this problem. "The government, NGOs and local communities need to be involved in spreading awareness among people- they don’t know what is happening in other parts of the country and they must be made aware of it," she said.