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'Evil-spirited' woman killed in Bangladesh church

Beating death shows challenging reality for Church in indigenous areas

'Evil-spirited' woman killed in Bangladesh church

Although many of Bangladesh's indigenous tribal people embraced Christianity more than a century ago, some still strongly believe in traditional superstitions. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)

Police in Bangladesh's northern Rajshahi district arrested six tribal Santal Catholics on Aug. 26 for allegedly beating a woman to death in the name of "releasing her from an evil spirit" inside a local Catholic Church.

The suspects allegedly took Fulmoni Mardi, 60, into St. John Mary Vianney Church in Mundumala on the night of Aug. 25 and beat her to "free her from the spell of an evil spirit," a police official said.

"The woman is a victim of superstition and maltreatment. We found serious injuries on her body which caused her death," said Anwar Hossain, officer in-charge at Tanore police station, which covers Mundumala.

"We have arrested six people after the victim’s daughter Shefali Hembrom filed a murder case. We will arrest more people for investigation and interrogation if necessary," the officer added.

The woman’s family members and relatives said they took her to the group as local villagers had talked about their miraculous healing power.

"People say this group had an apparition of Mother Mary and Jesus and had the power to heal sick people," said Philip Hembrom, 30, husband of Mardi’s daughter.

"My mother-in-law had been suffering from a bad headache for the past few days and we thought they might be able to cure her. But they have murdered her," Hembrom added.

Hembrom also accused the local parish priest of "backing the shaman group".


Superstitions and beliefs

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The parish priest, Father Michael Corraya, said he was asleep when people came to the church with the woman and beat her to death. The priest denied backing the group but admitted that he "partially" believed in their healing power.

"I have heard from people that they were healing people, because we do use charismatic prayers and Holy Water to heal sick people. But I never thought these people would go to such extremes," said Father Corraya.

The incident shows a challenging reality for the Catholic Church in the tribal-majority Dinajpur and Rajshahi dioceses of northern Bangladesh.  

Thousands of tribal people, including Santals, were converted to Christianity after 1904 by European missionaries. However, traditional belief and superstitions are still common among the mostly poor and illiterate tribal people, said Father Harun Hembrom, secretary of the diocesan Justice and Peace Commission in Rajshahi and a tribal Santal himself.

"Before converting to Christianity, tribal people were mostly Hindus and had strong belief in superstitions. The Church has been consistently trying to eradicate these beliefs with awareness-building courses, seminars and sermons, but they still exist," said Father Hembrom.

"Elderly tribal Catholics still have strong faith in traditional beliefs, and they are often inspired by non-Christians. It will take years and generations to change and to eliminate such harmful practices," the priest added.


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