Nation building in Myanmar, Bangladesh

Pope Francis during his visit will have a chance to see how Christians have contributed by providing vital services
Nation building in Myanmar, Bangladesh

Pope Francis waves to people as he arrives for his weekly general audience at St. Peter's Square on Nov. 15 at the Vatican. (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP)

In both countries, Catholic and Protestant missionaries built up outstanding education systems and institutions to help the poor and needy in villages and towns. The Christian community, especially the Catholic Church has played a vital role in the nation building process through services in important fields like education, health and human development.



Bangladesh Catholics serve the most vulnerable communities

Christians in Bangladesh are highly regarded by Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists for their significant contribution in the fields of education, health and development services to people, mainly to the poor, underprivileged and helpless.

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“Christians in Bangladesh are the ‘salt and light’ in the vast sea of Islam, making significant contributions in the nation building process by providing vital services in important fields like education, health and human development,” said Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka.

The Catholic Church in Bangladesh runs one university, 10 colleges and more than 500 primary and high schools across Bangladesh, offering education to about 100,000 pupils annually, most of them Muslims. Several Church-run colleges and schools are ranked among the country’s finest institutes thanks to their academic and disciplinary excellence.

The Catholic Church operates 10 hospitals across the country and more than 100 medical clinics based in Catholic parishes in rural and urban areas, catering to the medical needs of people across faiths and ethnicities. There are also half a dozen renowned hospitals run by Protestant churches.

Caritas Bangladesh, the Catholic Church’s social service agency, is one of the largest non-government organization in the country. It covers 208 administrative sub-districts (out of 491) through eight regional offices and apply their work to integrated community development, disaster management and human resource development. Caritas also runs over 1,000 free primary schools to offer basic education to country’s poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized communities.

English Baptist missionary William Carey arrived in Bengal in 1793 and was instrumental in developing Protestant missionary activities and social services work.
Carey translated and printed the Bible in Bengali, many other books and a dictionary of the Bengali language. He also helped develop Bengali typefaces for printing and pioneered the first local printing press with which he published newspapers and periodicals.

Christian missionaries contributed immensely to Bengali language and literature as they promoted a more colloquial and simplified form of the language, not using its highly-sophisticated form. Kripar Shashtrer Orthobhed, a catechism written by Father Manuel Da Asumpcao, a Portuguese Catholic missionary, and printed in 1743 in Portugal, is the first colloquial Bengali book in print using Latin script. Missioners are also credited with codifying Bengali grammar and writing a Bengali-Portuguese and Portuguese-Bengali dictionary.


Catholic Church’s record in Myanmar

In Myanmar, the 1962 coup that installed a military junta changed the scene for all the Christian churches for half a century. The junta banned clergy and religious from teaching in their schools which were nationalized, and deported all foreign missionaries by 1965. 

The extraordinary achievement of the Catholic Church in Myanmar is its survival during half a century of enforced isolation following the 1962 coup d’état led by General Ne Win He who subsequently headed the ruling junta and whose rule ushered in an uninterrupted period of oppressive rule and isolationist national socialism that for decades was akin to that of North Korea today.

In 1988, he was replaced by General Saw Maung who was quickly replaced by General Than Shwe 1992. The junta ruled not just by decree but by whim until the process of opening up began in 2008 and the country’s first flawed elections were held in 2010 when Than Shwe relinquished office. He, however, remains active behind the scene.

Despite being deprived of its health and education services,  nationalized by the government in the 1960s and, like the rest of the country, enduring the effects of the economic corruption and mismanagement of the military that has impoverished the country, the Church in Myanmar is full of energy for renewed religious life, aiming to serve society in typically Catholic ways now that government restraints are being slowly lifted.

The appointment of Charles Bo as Myanmar’s first cardinal has proved to be one of Pope Francis’ more obvious successes in a region where many top Catholic officials have opted to keep a low profile, being, as they are in every nation except the Philippines and Timor-Leste, a minority religion, and more often than not under some form of authoritarian government.

To be continued.

For a comprehensive understanding of Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh and to read the entire article “Myanmar and Bangladesh: Two Nations in the Heart of Asia" subscribe to La Civilta Cattolica available in both print and digital formats. UCAN publishes La Civilta Cattolica in English. The monthly is a highly popular and non-specialist review of religion and theology, culture and science, literature and art, politics and society and has a reputation for being the best barometer of thinking inside the Vatican.

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