Rosaline Costa, 67, a prominent Catholic rights activist has recently left Bangladesh for the United States after death threats from suspected Islamic fundamentalists. (ucanews.com photo by Stephan Uttom)
A prominent Catholic rights activist has had to flee Bangladesh, after months of harassment and death threats from suspected Islamists, leaving her colleagues and other Christian leaders shocked.
Rosaline Costa, 67, a former Maria Bambina nun and the executive director of Hotline Human Rights Bangladesh that she founded, left Bangladesh in July and now lives in New York City with her relatives.
Costa has been a vocal advocate of human rights, justice and tolerance in the country since 1986. She chronicled corruption, crime, terror and religious violence through Hotline Bangladesh, a monthly newsletter she edited for nearly 30 years.
In 1990s, she focused her attention on poor and marginalized children and garment workers.
"I started receiving harassing calls and death threats on phone," Costa told ucanews.com in an email. "I was told to be ready to die any time because I wrote many things against the so-called Islamic State and the Bangladesh Islamist extremists and their attacks on minority people."
"They called me at midnight and during the day from unknown numbers. I shared it with none, not even my family, because people knew me as a strong and outstandingly courageous person and it would create panic and fear for many," she said.
Several police officers refused to file a complaint. Eventually Costa went to one officer whom she knew well who helped her register a complaint.
However, it didn't stop the harassment. "I couldn't move out of my house nor from the office," she said. "It was like a prison. It was too much stress for me. I could not bear it any more and I decided to leave to remain alive."
Theophil Nokrek, secretary of Bangladesh Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, expressed shock over Costa's exit.
"Everyone has the right to save their life in the face of insecurity," Nokrek told ucanews.com. "For Costa, it might be her best option to stay alive, but it's surely bad news for our community and society as she was one of the few strong people who was vocal for rights of the oppressed people."
The hounding of Costa illustrates the grave dangers Christians and all minorities face in Bangladesh, Nokrek said.
"Christian leaders including priests, pastors and NGO workers are facing threats from militants. If people like Costa start leaving one by one, there will be no one left to turn to."
Nirmol Rozario, secretary of Bangladesh Christian Association, echoed similar sentiments.
"This is so unfortunate that a vocal rights advocate who fought vehemently against discrimination, persecution and oppression irrespective of religion, caste and gender, had to leave the country silently amid threats from fundamentalists," said Rozario. "This is a great loss for the minority Christian community where strong and courageous voices are too few."
Rozario hoped that Costa would still work for Bangladesh from the U.S. and come back to the country one day.
"I hope she can still fight for the rights of people from America and help us to continue to advocate for minorities and resist fundamentalist forces," he said. "Hopefully, she will come back one day."
Muslim-majority Bangladesh has seen a surge in Islamic militancy in recent years, with extremists carrying out dozens of deadly attacks on atheist bloggers, academics, liberal activists, foreigners and religious minorities.
On July 1, extremists murdered 22 hostages including 18 foreigners in a Dhaka cafe in the worst militant attack in the country.
Last year, suspected militants tried to slit the throat of a Protestant pastor and shot an Italian Catholic priest. At least two dozen priests, pastors, Christian leaders and aid workers have received death threats via mail, text and phone.
Costa said that she has met with officials at U.S. State Department who have promised to find her work. She doesn't want to return to Bangladesh soon.
"Maybe I will return one day, but I don't know when I can," she explained. "At the moment I don't feel safe to live and work in Bangladesh."