‘You are a ‘little flock’ and many of you are poor. You struggle with the natural limitations and man-made difficulties of your existence in this land. You know that in spite of these circumstances the Lord calls you to lives of holiness and peace’. In November 1986, Pope John Paul II, during his apostolic journey to Bangladesh, addressed himself to the faithful gathered in Dhaka with these words, underlining the challenges of a Church that already had a slightly long – and difficult – history, despite being relatively small (Christians amount to 0,3 – 0,5 percent of the roughly 163 million Bangladeshi, who are mainly Muslim).
Christianity arrived in present-day Bangladesh (part of the Bengal region of India from a geographical point of view) with the Portuguese, who sailed the Indian Ocean Route to the Far East in the early 16th century. The foundation of the Indian diocese of Goa in 1534 gave an impulse to the preaching of the Word and in 1600 the first-ever church in Bengal – run by the Jesuits – was consecrated in Iswaripur. Also the Dominicans and the Austin Friars undertook the task of evangelization. According to some sources, less than a century later, in 1682, 27.000 Bengalese men and women had received Baptism, more than half of them (14.120) living in Eastern Bengal.
Religious affiliation, however, had much to do with politics, both international (when the British prevailed over the Portuguese in India, this also had an impact on the missionary work) and local: even in 1937 an entire village asked the Jesuits in Calcutta to reopen an almost abandoned mission. The people chose to embrace Christianity in order to defend themselves from the abuses of both a local landholder and the police. The influence of pre-existing beliefs and that of Hinduism and Islam, together with the lack of experienced local catechists, was a challenge to the missionaries. Moreover, Christianity was perceived as a foreign cult, and its rites and language were not understood even by the majority of converts.
Things, according to missionary sources of those years, did not change when the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (or PIME, from its Latin acronym) and the Salesians joined the Jesuits in the area. Entire villages, from time to time, asked to become Christian, though their requests were often motivated by some other kind of needs, such as marginalization and socio-economic problems, and if they were not solved, the whole community suddenly returned to its original belief (mainly Hinduism). Attention to the people’s need for security and protection, and assistance given also to those who had abandoned the faith, made things a little better, but only the Second Vatican Council marked a real, major, turning point.
‘The documents of the Council have helped us to ameliorate our communities, turning them into parishes with a larger autonomy’, said Fr. William Murmu, a chancellor of the Diocese of Rajashi. ‘The participation of lay people in the Church activities has also been fundamental’, added the priest. An important challenge – from a theological point of view – is still that of inculturation, particularly with regard to local traditions and rites.
A slightly different problem is the rise of fundamentalist Islam, which has to do with the broader political instability in the country: in early January, the main opposition group, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), boycotted – together with others – the general elections which thus ended up in a landslide victory for the ruling party, the Awami League. This followed months of protests aimed to force the sitting government and its leader, Sheikh Hasina, to resign. In May 2013 the Archbishop of Dhaka, Mgr. Patrick D’Rozario, told a Catholic NGO, Aid to the Church in Need, that radical Islamic groups were to blame for some uprisings in the capital, and that the BNP ‘supported this’, in order to topple the government. However, according to the archbishop, Christians were not affected by those events.
In the following months some violent episodes occurred (for instance, a seminar was attacked in the northern diocese of Dinajpur in June 2013 and a young Christian activist was killed in January 2014) and many members of the religious minorities (Christians and Hindus) renounced voting in the polls because they felt intimidated by radical Islamists. Radical Muslim groups are also lobbying so that a stricter law on blasphemy is approved, but the government refused to back the proposal. In the aftermath of the January elections, a new wave of demonstrations broke out in the country. Again, Christians were relatively unharmed, according to the archbishop of Dhaka: ‘As Christians,we haven’t experienced particular problems, even though a bomb hit a church in Dhaka, causing little damage and no victims’, he said.
Christians ‘can bring a message of hope amid violence and chaos’, the archbishop also said, and that is what many missionaries are doing in various fields, always taking the side of the most vulnerable people. Professional schools help girls to learn a profession, so that they can earn a living; indigenous peoples (which are recognized by the government just as ‘ethnic minorities’) are supported in their attempts to obtain more rights; missionaries in Dhaka care for the working conditions of those who came from the rural areas in order to find a job. The Church in Bangladesh is still a ‘small flock’, as it was at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit, but it has heard Blessed Wojtyla’s call, staying dynamic in both preaching and deeds.