Bangladeshi Catholics sing koshter gaan (songs of sorrow) during Lent in Chorakhola village of Tumilia Parish, northeast of the capital Dhaka. The Lenten songs are an important tradition for generations but this year Catholics in the South Asian country are having a tough time keeping their spiritual practices amid a national economic crisis. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Michael Das, a Catholic rickshaw puller in Bangladesh, and his family can usually only afford vegetarian food, and normally avoids expensive fish meat and eggs, giving them almost no food to abstain from during Lent
As a practice, the 41-year old and his family eat less of their vegetarian food during Lent and engage in special penance prayers. But this year’s economic crisis has forced Das to even forgo his special prayers and work longer hours to put food on the family table.
“It feels really bad but I cannot afford to participate in the Way of the Cross on Fridays. I need to earn daily,” Das told UCA News.
During Lent, the family eats a little less and helps other poor people, but this year it is proving really tough.
“Helping others is a joy but we just can’t anymore,” he says.
Das lives with his family in the southern city of Khulna, about 250 kilometers from the capital Dhaka.
His wife works as a domestic worker while their eldest child, an 18-year-old son, goes to college. The other two children, a son and a daughter, are studying in school.
The couple earns around 400 taka (US$3.75) daily and most of it is spent on buying rice, vegetables and oil. There’s little left to afford anything else.
Due to increasing costs, it has been proving tough for them to educate their children.
“I think that the Way of the Cross is not just about kneeling and praying. I chant Jesus’ name all the while I toil on the roads to feed my family,” Das says.
Bangladeshi Catholics do not consume meat, fish, or eggs on Fridays and Wednesdays during the Lenten season. Some observe fasting for 40 days and perform acts of charity.
Puspa Biswas, 29, who works as a swing operator in a garment factory in Dhaka for a daily wage of 300 taka says despite the difficult times, she continues to donate at least 10 taka daily.
He husband who works in a restaurant for a monthly salary of 8,000 taka encourages her to do so.
The couple stays with their 12-year-old son in a rented room in the Mirpur area.
“With the money we earn, we cannot do much for those who are poorer than us, but even donating this tiny amount gives me mental and spiritual satisfaction,” Puspa told UCA News.
For most poor Catholics in the country, abstinence has become a daily routine since the economy faltered after the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and there is little they can do now except pray during the Lenten season and hope things improve, she added.
“Along with going to church and giving a small donation, praying with the whole family at night is my Lent,” Puspa said.
Christians, mostly Catholics, are a tiny minority in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, numbering around 600,000 in a population of about 165 million. An estimated 100,000 Catholics live in the capital Dhaka.
According to Church officials around two-thirds of the Catholic population is poor, working daily for a paltry return.
“I think for low-income families, the high prices of essential goods are proving a constant worry this Lent. They’ll feel the pinch when after fasting for 40 days, they think of eating a little better on Easter Sunday. Sadly they cannot afford to,” Father Hubert Liton Gomes, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, told UCA News.
The Holy Cross priest said the lack of money in poor households has had an impact on their spiritual practices during the Lenten season.
Some better-off parishes are raising donations to help those parishes with poor and low-income people. Some faithful are also donating in a personal capacity to better the lives of their co-religionists, Gomes said.
“I am doing my bit without expecting anything. I got some daily essentials like rice, pulses, and oil during the last Lent, but nothing this year,” Puspa said.
The Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) says that poor and middle-income people suffered the most throughout 2022 as the average annual inflation rate hit 11.08 percent in Dhaka.
CAB chairman Ghulam Rahman told UCA News that rising prices due to the global market are forcing many in Bangladesh to cut costs in the kitchen.
“Commodity prices are relative to the global market. So I think the government should take appropriate measures to increase the income of the low and middle-income people and at the same time increase imports, while also ensuring that traders do not sell products at high prices,” Rahman told UCA News.