Bangladesh’s Catholic Church celebrates 500 years (video and photos)
by Sumon Corraya

The first Catholics to land on the coast near Chittagong were Portuguese merchants in 1518. After 80 years, the first missionaries arrived. The history of the origins of the local Church remains largely unknown. However, the example of the first believers, including many martyrs, continues to nurture a community that today continues to contribute to the country’s social and economic development.

Chittagong (AsiaNews) - The Catholic Church of Bangladesh today marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the first Christians, as part of an initiative undertaken by Card Patrick D'Rozario and Mgr Moses Costa, bishop of Chittagong.

The anniversary marks the first settlement of Portuguese Catholic merchants in 1518 and provides an opportunity to remember the origins of a Church that is so far from Rome but one that has a long and yet mostly unknown history. This includes remembering its martyrs, the many Christians who gave their life to remain loyal to Christ and whose blood has seeped into the Bengal soil.

Held in Diang, in the diocese of Chittagong (recently renamed Chattogram), the event has attracted more than 8,000 Catholics, 100 priests, 120 nuns and 10 bishops from all over the country. Mgr Lumen Monteiro, bishop of Agartala (India), is also present.

After a full day of festivity, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists gathered in the evening in the cathedral for an inter-religious meeting, a show of the harmony and joy that mark interfaith relations in the country. For Mgr Costa “Christian things” are not just for Christians, but for everyone.

Speaking about the Church’s history, the prelate described the first steps taken by Portuguese merchants when they landed on the shores of Chittagong some 500 years ago.

These pioneers, he explained, “held Christ in their heart and helped Christianity grow in this land." It took however 80 years before the first priests arrived. The first Catholic missionary, “Fr Francisco Fernandez came from the Diocese of Cochin (India) in 1598. The following year he built the first church in Bangladesh in Diang (Chittagong). In 1600 he built two other churches, in Bandal and Jamalkhan."

The blood of martyrdom marks the origins of Christianity in this fertile land. Fr Fernandez, "who protested against the domination of the Rakhine army (currently a state in Myanmar), was captured in 1602, tortured and died in prison on 14 November. He is the first martyr of Bangladesh. The cathedral of Chittagong stands on his tomb."

At that time, "his evangelising work won the hearts of many people,” said the bishop. “For this reason, a few years later (1607), soldiers killed 600 Christians by burning them alive in the place where we are now, in Diang, on the site of the Marian shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Miriam Ashram Church.”

"This is also a pilgrimage site, visited by thousands of devotees each year. Many do not know the history of the origins of our Church. This is why we have carried out an information campaign ahead of the event."

On the eve of the celebration, a prayer was held yesterday. Mgr Sebastian Tudu, bishop of Dinajpur, stressed that "the Portuguese had a lot of courage. They were killed for their faith. Let's pay homage to them. We should all learn to be Christians like them. Let us pray for the eternal rest of their souls."

Today the Catholic Church has 380,000 members across the Muslim majority country, 33,000 in Chittagong. The local archdiocese runs 16 schools, 125 kindergartens, 17 hostels and 13 medical dispensaries.

Overall, Catholics administer a university, 10 colleges, and over 500 schools, which provide a high-level of education to 100,000 students, mostly Muslims.