Against the backdrop of violence and escalating tensions between the government and the opposition in the run-up to Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections slated for Jan. 5, 2014, one of the country’s leading Catholic prelates is calling for calm.
Archbishop Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka, the country’s capital, told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that “the situation is very tense. For months we have been experiencing strikes, blockades, violent conflict, terrorist attacks, arson and hatred here in Bangladesh. There have been deaths and hundreds of people have been injured. I am asking all Christians in the country and elsewhere to pray for peace and reconciliation in Bangladesh.”
A recent flashpoint came with the execution of Abdul Quader Molla, a leader of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party, an Islamist organization. The 65-year-old had been found guilty of war crimes during the 1971 war of independence, when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan. Close to 3 million people died in that conflict—the great majority of them Hindus—while 200,000 women were raped. Several other cases charging Jamaat-e-Islami with war crimes are pending. The special court responsible for handling cases of atrocities committed during the war of independence was set up by the government in 2011. The opposition rejected the institution of the court outright.
Archbishop D’Rozario said Catholics have a special duty to perform in committing themselves to prayer and penance: “Our prayers are not in vain. The country needs dialogue and I hope that it will succeed! In Bangladesh all Christians, regardless of their denomination, feel solidarity with their compatriots of other faiths. Our charitable and social initiatives serve the entire country, with our work supporting education and development, as well as serving the poor and those who are particularly affected by climate change. We are trying to live out our faith and the values we advocate,” he said.
For decades there has been conflict between the party currently in power—the Awami League (AL) under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed—and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. The BNP is supported by Jamaat-e-Islami, which is legally barred from participating in elections in this majority Muslim country. The BNP and its allies oppose the secular AL-led government and have said they will boycott the Jan. 5 vote.
Islam is the state religion, but the constitution provides for religious freedom. About 88% of the almost 143 million Bangladeshis are Muslims. Hindus comprise 9%, with Buddhists, Christians and adherents of traditional religions making up the balance. There are 320,000 Catholics in Bangladesh.