ucanews.com reporters, DhakaUpdated: March 01, 2016 10:39 AM GMT
Students and teachers rally during an Interfaith Harmony Week in Dhaka on Feb. 1, 2016. Bangladeshi activists say Islam’s status as the state religion in constitution breeds communalism and hinders interfaith harmony. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Bangladesh’s Supreme Court on Feb. 29 began hearing arguments on a writ petition challenging the insertion of Islam as the state religion in the country’s constitution, in a move lauded by minority leaders including a Catholic bishop.
A three-judge bench is presently reviewing the petition to see if Islam as the state religion is in conflict with the country's constitution. The petition was originally filed by 15 prominent writers, former judges, educationists and cultural activists in 1988.
"Even if it is delayed, the court has decided to start the hearing because it's a petition on a constitutional issue," attorney general Mahbubey Alam told reporters in Dhaka on Feb. 29.
They challenged the-then military government’s decision that same year to make Islam the state religion of Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
Drafted in 1972, soon after Bangladesh's split from Pakistan in 1971, the original constitution declared the country a secular state.
However, military ruler Ziaur Rahman erased secularism from the constitution in 1977 while his successor, H.M. Ershard — another military ruler — made Islam the state religion in 1988.
In 2011, the government led by the center-left Awami League Party, reinstated secularism in principle to the constitution following a Supreme Court ruling in 2009.
However, it kept Islam as the state religion out of fear of losing votes.
Religious minorities have applauded the move to look at the state religion issue.
The court’s decision to review the petition is a matter great hope for religious minorities, said Bishop Bejoy N. D’Cruze of Sylhet, chairman of the Catholic bishops’ Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue Commission.
“When a state officially accepts a state religion, then it puts barricades for communal harmony because it recognizes supremacy of a particular religion and makes other religions inferior,” Bishop D’Cruze told ucanews.com.
Recent extremist attacks on religious minorities are an indirect consequence of the constitutional provision of a state religion, he said.
“We hope and demand that every religion in Bangladesh are put on an equal footing in terms of status and respect,” he added.
By sponsoring Islam as an official religion, the state has created grounds for the persecution of minorities, especially Hindus, says Govinda Chadra Pramanik, secretary of Bangladesh National Hindu Grand Alliance.
“The state religion established the supremacy of Islam over other religions, offering a weapon to radical Islamists to abuse minority communities. Moreover, Islam gets more attention from the state, not other religions, which is an obstacle to interfaith harmony,” he told ucanews.com.
State backing for Islam has slowly developed communalism and contributed to the dwindling Hindu population in Bangladesh, Pramanik added.
“As the state religion, Islam put psychological pressure on minorities, and makes them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The [Supreme] court must come to the right decision and withdraw it,” he added.
Nirmol Rozario, secretary of Bangladesh Christian Association echoed the call.
“Since 1988, we have been opposing Islam as the state religion. Religion is a personal matter and a democratic state can’t have an official religion,” Rozario told ucanews.com.
“This is nothing but an effort to dominate other religions in the country. It must stop.”
About 90 percent of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim, eight percent are Hindus while the rest belong to other religions including Buddhism and Christianity.