Legacy of pope's visit lingers on in Bangladesh

Society heeded his calls for justice, inclusivity but messages starting to dilute one year later, religious leaders say
Legacy of pope's visit lingers on in Bangladesh

Thousands of Catholics greet Pope Francis as he makes a tour on his popemobile before the start of a public Mass at Suhrawardy Udayn Park in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Dec. 1, 2017. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

Pope Francis' journey to Bangladesh in late 2017 has had a positive effect on society while his appeal to keep an "open heart" has seen people work harder to overcome their differences and thwart the threat of extremism, according to Oblate Bishop Bejoy N. D'Cruze of Sylhet.

The pontiff's visit touched the lives of everyone in the nation yet there is still much work to be done to fully materialize his call for a culture of love and justice, Bangladeshi Christian, Muslim and Hindu leaders say.

"Bangladesh is a good example of a country that strives for religious harmony and offers cultural diversity. For decades, the church has actively promoted dialogue among various religions," Bishop D'Cruze, chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Commission for Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue, told ucanews.com.

"The pope's message of love, peace and harmony has given a significant boost to our efforts to have people of all creeds and classes peacefully co-exist," he said.

Pope Francis visited Dhaka from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2. He was the third pope to visit the nation after Paul VI in 1970 and St. John Paul II in 1986.

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A young girl welcomes Pope Francis with a bouquet of flowers upon his arrival at Dhaka airport on Nov. 30, 2017. (Photo by Joe Torres/ucanews.com)

 

"Even before he arrived, he was hugely popular among Bangladeshis from all parts of the social spectrum," Bishop D'Cruze said.

"This was largely because of his strong advocacy for the poor and oppressed, and his appeal for an end to the culture of injustice and corruption," he said.

"People welcomed him not just a top religious leader, but as a global advocate for peace, harmony, and the voiceless."

Despite the upsurge in radicalism and Islamic militancy in the region, the pope chose Bangladesh for its long tradition of religious pluralism and harmony, the prelate said.

 

Invigorating Christians

His visit also highlighted the contributions of Christians, who make up less than half a percent in Bangladesh's more than 160 million people, said Nirmol Rozario, president of the Bangladesh Christian Association, the country's top inter-denominational Christian forum.

"Christians are a minuscule minority but they have made great contributions in various sectors, including education, health, and social development," he said. "But they need to do more in the fields of justice, human rights, and peace building."

"The pope's visit shone a spotlight on Christians and raised their image in the country," he told ucanews.com.

Pope Francis speaks with a Rohingya refugee during an interfaith gathering in Dhaka on Dec. 1, 2017. (Photo by Joe Torres/ucanews.com)

 

Islam is dominant in Bangladesh with about 90 percent of the public identifying with this religion, followed by Hinduism (8 percent), and other faiths including Buddhism and Christianity.

There are about 600,000 Christians, mostly Catholics spread across eight dioceses. Roughly half of the country's Christians hail from ethnic groups.

Despite all the fanfare, pageantry and excitement surrounding the pope's historic visit one year ago, however, many Catholics are still not practicing what he preached, Bishop D'Cruze lamented.

"The pope warned against materialism and abuse of power but some of the faithful, including religious leaders, seem to have forgotten this already," he said.

"Most are following his instructions but others continue to neglect their vows and put aside their duties for their own comfort. We need to work harder to advocate in favor of peace and justice, not just for minorities but for everyone," Bishop D'Cruze added.

 

Inclusive growth

Dr. Benedict Alo D'Rozario, a former executive director of Caritas Bangladesh, the church's charity arm, said the pope urged "inclusive growth" for everyone.

"His message highlighted the need for inclusive development, both from the church and the state. He called for more participation from laity, women and young people, and he sought to help the poor. He entreated us to denounce materialism and march to a life of holiness," he said.

D'Rozario said the church's recent pastoral workshop incorporated the pope's messages and priorities, but expressed concern that implementation was still stuck at the "planning" stage.

"So far, there haven't been many visible signs of the pope's teachings reaching out to people effectively. Pope Francis asked us to be more vocal about minorities' rights and justice for all to help break the culture of silence. We still have a long way to go," he added.

Pope Francis is pictured with Bangladeshi President Abdul Hamid at Dhaka airport. (Photo by Joe Torres/ucanews.com)

 

The church must work harder to involve laity and women, said Rita Roselin Costa, a development worker and women's rights activist.

"We've seen an increase in the participation of women in the church, yet there are still many limits placed on what women can do," she said.

Govinda Chandra Pramanik, a Hindu leader and Supreme Court lawyer, said the pontiff's visit inspired hope for socio-political change but that this has not borne much fruit.

"He called for tolerance and stability, which could be achieved with more compromise and dialogue. Sadly, our society and political parties don't care too much about other people so intolerance is on the rise. The pope came with great messages but most of us have failed to grasp and internalize them," Pramanik said.

During his three-day visit, Pope Francis paid tribute to the millions of martyrs from Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence with Pakistan. He met President Abdul Hamid on Nov. 30, held a public Mass on Dec. 1, and ordained 16 deacons to the priesthood.

He also met Catholic bishops, and attended an interfaith gathering featuring thousands of people from various faiths and Christian denominations.

The highlight of that meeting saw him pray with a delegation representing nearly a million Rohingya Muslim refugees who had fled a series of deadly crackdowns in neighboring Myanmar's Rakhine state.

Before leaving for the Vatican, he also visited a Catholic-run homeless shelter and attended an interfaith gathering of 10,000 students at the Church-run Notre Dame College in Dhaka.

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