Archbishop George Kocherry, apostolic nuncio to Bangladesh, lights a candle with leaders of other faiths during a Catholic Church-sponsored national interfaith seminar in Dhaka on Nov. 9. (Photo courtesy of Robin Bhabuk)
Followers of various faiths in Bangladesh have vowed at a national seminar to combat religious extremism with “open hearts” in order to strengthen peace and harmony around the country. The half-day program drew 175 participants, including Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist leaders, social activists and intellectuals, at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB) center in capital Dhaka on Nov. 9. The event was organized by the Catholic bishops’ Commission for Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue with the theme “Openness of hearts brings peace and harmony.” The program was part of the Church’s ongoing emphasis on interfaith dialogue as an instrument of peace and harmony, which has gained further momentum since Pope Francis’ visit to Bangladesh in 2017. “One of the main priorities of Pope Francis’ pontificate is dialogue with [other] faiths to establish and sustain peace in the world,” Oblate Bishop Bejoy N. D’Cruze, the commission chairman, told ucanews. “He reiterated this when he attended a interreligious gathering in Dhaka and urged all of us to continue open hearts for each other.
“When we have open hearts for all and learn to love people irrespective of their faiths and ethnicities, we can establish and strengthen peace and harmony, and effectively combat extremism at the core.” Interfaith dialogue is a movement that the Church pioneered and intends to spread to grassroots level, Bishop D’Cruze added. United against 'radical elements'
Dialogue between faiths can expunge communal and extremist elements in society, said Maolana Fariduddin Masoud, a prominent Islamic cleric and president of Bangladesh Jamiyat-ul-Ulema (Council of Clerics). “Bangladesh is largely a land of religious harmony but there are some radical elements that try to disturb peace for vested interests. Interfaith dialogue at central and grassroots levels can unite people and stand strong against extremism.” His group has in recent years been collaborating with the government to reach out to local Islamic leaders to preach sermons focusing on denouncing extremism and encouraging respect for all religions, he added. Despite being a land of harmony, Bangladesh continues to face growing dangers from religious extremism, noted Pijush Bandyopadhyay, a Hindu and former stage and film actor. “Due to external and internal factors, we have narrowed our hearts,” said Bandyopadhyay, convener of interfaith advocacy group Sompriti (Harmony) Bangladesh. “Nowadays, we don’t feel free to mix with people of other faiths during religious festivals like Eid, Puja and Christmas as we did in the past. We must get out of our ‘smallness’ by extending the movement of interfaith harmony side by side with the Christian community.” In Bangladesh, about 90 percent of its 160 million population are Muslims, most of them adhering to a moderate form of Sunni Islam. About 8 percent are Hindus and the rest belong to other faiths including Buddhism and Christianity. However, since 2013, the nation has seen a marked rise in Islamic extremism, with militant outfits murdering about 50 people including atheist bloggers, writers, liberal academics, religious minorities and foreigners. In addition, four incidents of religiously charged violence by Muslim mobs have seen hundreds of places of worships, houses and businesses belonging to Buddhists and Hindus destroyed in Bangladesh since 2012.
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