Understanding the religious context of Bangladesh and Myanmar

Christianity here is beholden to both Catholic and Protestant missionaries for developing the local church
Understanding the religious context of Bangladesh and Myanmar

Pope Francis gives his weekly general audience at St. Peter's Square on Nov. 15, in the Vatican. (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP)  

Both countries that Pope Francis is to visit have seen waves of religious persecution. In Bangladesh, violence is generally directed against Hindus and Buddhists by Muslims while in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, it is against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya people who are related to Bangladeshi Bengalis. In this section, we explore why despite Christians making up very small minorities in both countries, they have largely been spared harassment. This could be because Christians have a long history there and contributed significantly to the development of these societies.



Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are new and fragile democracies with a history of military rule and one party autocracy.

Burma gained independence in 1948 and more than 50 years of political turmoil was cut off from the rest of the world after the 1962 military coup d’etat from which it only emerged in 2010 with elections. A second round was held in November 2015 sweeping the National League for Democracy to power in a landslide that saw Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi assume the role of State Counselor or de facto leader. But the military remains the senior partner in a power sharing arrangement, still controlling defense, border and interior ministries.

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Bangladesh has been a so-called democracy since 1996. But in 2014 as the second largest party, the Bangladesh National Party did not become a parliamentary opposition because it declined participation in the last election after the rival Awami League refused to hold polls under a neutral, caretaker government.

About 90 percent of the estimated 160 million people in Bangladesh are Sunni Muslims, with a majority following a moderate form of Islam influenced by Sufism according to Banglapedia, the national encyclopedia of Bangladesh. 

Hindus make up the largest minority group at 8 percent and the rest belong to other faiths including Buddhism, Christianity and ancient indigenous religions. Some 500,000 Buddhists are mostly concentrated in southeastern Bangladesh, close to its border with Myanmar and they follow the Theravada school of Buddhism that continues to dominate the religious landscape in Myanmar.

Even though the Catholic Church and indeed the broader Christian churches have been very small minorities in both countries, they have contributed significantly to the development of Muslim Bangladesh and Buddhist Myanmar. But both countries have seen waves of religious persecution, generally directed against Hindus and Buddhists by Bangladeshi Muslims and against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya people who are related to Bangladeshi Bengalis. 

In Bangladesh, Christians account for less than half a percent of the population or an estimated 600,000. The majority of Christians are Catholics spread over country’s eight dioceses. Half of the Christians are Bengalis, the majority ethnic group, while the other half hail from various ethnic indigenous communities.

The proportion of Christians in Myanmar is higher due to the relative success of missionaries — both Catholic and Protestant — with ethnic minorities in the often large regions and states that surround the center.

Drafted in 1972, Bangladesh’s original constitution established secularism, nationalism, socialism and democracy as four main principles of the state. However, two military regimes during the period from 1975 to1990 replaced secularism with “absolute trust in almighty Allah” and also declared Islam as the state religion. In 2011, the Awami League government restored “secularism” in the constitution, but refrained from abolishing “the state religion of Islam,” fearing a political backlash.



The current constitution of the Union of Myanmar, written by the military in 2008 with the singular aim of allowing it to retain enormous power despite a commitment to regular elections, asserts freedom of religion but reports say Catholic citizens are routinely denied better-paying administrative jobs and barred from what little social services the government provides. They are also prohibited from building new churches.

The most pervasive issue affecting Christians is land ownership for religious purposes. The bureaucratic procedures put in place during military rule in the early 1990s, and still in practice today, amount to discriminatory restrictions designed to obstruct permission rather than to facilitate it according to U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom report “Hidden Plight-Christian Minorities in Burma” in December, 2016.

The first evidence of a Christian presence in Myanmar is found in the 13th Century frescos with crosses and Latin and Greek scripts found in some places in Bagan area covering the former Bagan Kingdom located in the Mandalay Region. Various historians believe these early Christians to be part of the Nestorian diaspora.  But it was after the Portuguese established a sea route to Asia in 1498 and settled in Goa, southwestern India, that missionaries set out from Europe.

The landing of Christian European (Portuguese) merchants at Chittagong port marked the advent of Christianity in 1517. Some records say that in 1550 a French Franciscan priest, Bonferre, went on a Portuguese ship from Goa to what was then the Bagan Kingdom on Myanmar and on to the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand). In 1548, St. Francis Xavier wrote letters about the need to send missioners to Pegu but nothing is heard later about these initiatives.

Portuguese mercenary Filipe de Brito Nicote established Portuguese-backed rule in Thanlyin, near today’s Yangon, in 1603. This helped Catholic missioners to come to the area but the initiative only lasted ten years when a local king defeated Nicote to end the mission. 

In 1722, the Vatican reestablished a mission assigning Barnabite priests who secured their freedom to preach after many difficulties. Following them, priests from the congregation of the Oblates of Pinerolo came but they abandoned the mission in 1752 after the British annexed Pegu following a bloody war.

For some time, the mission was under the care of Vicar Apostolic of Siam but in 1806, the Vatican’s Propaganda Fide divided Myanmar into three regions known as vicariates — Northern Burma, Southern Burma, and Eastern Burma. The northern and southern vicariates were entrusted to the care of priests of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (MEP) while the eastern vicariate was put under the Milan’s Pontifical Institute of the Foreign Missions (PIME).

Myanmar now has an estimated 750,000 Catholics, a number that has more than doubled since Burmese independence in 1948. 

Catholics who number about 1.5 percent of the population are in three archdioceses, 13 suffragan dioceses and are served by some 2,000 Religious Brothers and Sisters and more than 900 diocesan and religious clergy.

The work of evangelization relies on the efforts of some 2,600 catechists in parishes throughout the country. Protestant groups came later but have had more success first appearing in the 19th century under the British colonial rule.

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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