Indigenous Catholics keep faith alive in Bangladeshi hills

Christianity has brought positive changes to minorities in the remote, mountainous Chittagong Hill Tracts
Indigenous Catholics keep faith alive in Bangladeshi hills

Koiati Tripura, 42, an indigenous Catholic mother of five, weaves clothes in Hatibhanga village in Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)

Hatibhanga is a typical indigenous village amid the hilly slopes of Bandarban district in southeast Bangladesh.

In the village, Koiati Tripura weaves traditional dresses using her handloom inside a tin-roofed bamboo house.

Koiati, 42, is a mother of five and one of the 300 indigenous Tripura people who make up her village. Most of the people are poor and landless. Most of them are also Catholics who attend Mass at the Queen of Fatima Catholic Church in Bandarban.

To lessen her family's financial woes, Koiati was married at the age of 17 but her husband, a casual laborer, died of an unknown disease 12 years ago.

The family were in dire straits and the only thing they had to their name was the roof over their heads.

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But Koiati was adamant that she would defy the odds. "I toil as a daily laborer so that my family can survive and when I have some time, I weave clothes to sell in the market," Koiati told ucanews.com.

Her husband's death put a stop to her children's education but she was determined to put them back to school.

"I worked very hard to help them get back to school. Today, one son is studying in grade eight and two daughters are in primary school. I hope to support their education as long as I can," she said.

Two of her other sons completed high school and are looking for jobs. The eldest daughter is married.

Koiati earns about 7,000 taka (US$82) a month, which she says is insufficient for the family.

Koiati is devout in her Catholic faith. If she cannot go to church in the town for Sunday Mass, she joins Sunday liturgy in a chapel with her children in the village.

A local catechist looks after the village, and local Catholics see priests twice a year — Christmas and Easter Sunday.

Last year, a heavy storm smashed the roof of her house and the local church offered her assistance to rebuild it. A few years ago, Catholic charity Caritas set up a deep well for to improve the village's access to water.

An indigenous Tripura woman returns home after collecting drinking water from a hilly stream in Hatibhanga village. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)

 

Bandarban, along with Rangamati and Khagrachhari, make up what is called the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Bangladesh's only mountainous region bordering both Myanmar and India.

It is home to about 25 ethnic minority groups, majority Buddhists and some Christians. They have their own languages, culture and customs, markedly different from the Bengali majority.

In the 1950s, Catholic missionaries began evangelizing among indigenous peoples and established the first church in Rangamati in 1955 and the second one in Bandarban two years later.

The area today has seven Catholic parishes and three mission centers all covered by Chittagong Archdiocese. About two-thirds of about 30,000 Catholics in Chittagong are indigenous people from the CHT, mostly Tripura people.

Francis Tripura, coordinator of CHT Regional Pastoral Council, said Christianity has brought many positive changes to the lives of indigenous peoples.

"Indigenous peoples were superstitious and nature worshippers, but not anymore. They were like migratory birds, moving from one place to another, but now they have settled down," Francis told ucanews.com.

"They get an education, save money and try to improve their socio-economic conditions. They have a happy and stable marriage and family life, which can withstand all troubles."

He credits the development to early missionaries who embraced indigenous peoples, learned their language and loved their culture.

Dwindling foreign donations, a lack of religious vocation and the young leaving their villages and communities are major problems, he said. 

Holy Cross Archbishop Moses M. Costa of Chittagong said the church's mission in the remote area is very challenging. On top of the problems related to endemic poverty, there are language and culture difficulties.

Apart from development efforts by Caritas, the church has been offering financial advice and supporting cooperative societies in a bid to address the poverty.

"People need to learn to save money and invest so that poverty can be well faced," said Archbishop Costa.

"We don't have enough priests and we cannot invite foreign missionaries in this area due to restrictions. This year, we have started a seminary here, so we are hopeful to get local priests from this area within a few years."

There are also disputes over land and sectarian conflicts, he said.

Since the late 1970s, state-sponsored migration of Bengali Muslims settlers has led to land grabbing and sectarian clashes. In retaliation, a tribal militia was formed and it attacked Muslims and government forces. The government militarized the region and fighting continued until a 1997 peace accord amid opposition from some tribal groups.

Inadequate implementation of the accord, particularly the ongoing military presence, continuous Muslim migration and little progress with land dispute resolution make the region volatile. Communal conflicts are common as is deadly rivalry between warring tribal groups.

The government maintains the CHT as the country's only no-go zone for foreigners.

Archbishop Costa said that to maintain peace in the region more dialogue is needed.

"Deploying the army to control the situation and maintain peace is not a proper solution. There should be more dialogue between the tribal people and the government so that they have their rights respected," he said. 

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