02/25/2010, 00.00
BANGLADESH

Military against Christians in Baghaichhari, three churches on fire, thousands flee

William Gomes
Local Christians are in shock after an attack by about a hundred soldiers on 19 February. About 1,800 people are hiding in the forest, fearing more violence. Police chief pledges security, but for Christian man, they are “meaningless words”.
Dhaka (AsiaNews) – Christians living in Baghaichhari Upazila (district) in southeastern Bangladesh are shaken by an attack against them carried out by about a hundred soldiers. Around 10 pm on 19 February, soldiers beat up people and set fire to three churches, a Buddhist pagoda and 41 homes. They had moved into the area, ostensibly to stop clashes between indigenous tribal groups and Bangladeshi settlers. At present, more than 500 families for a total of some 1,800 people have fled into the forest fearing more attacks.

Clinton Chakama, a member of the Gongarama Baptist Church, told AsiaNews that he was “still scared” just to think about “the sudden attack by the army”. At the beginning, “they started beating us, then poured liquid fuel on the church. We tried to stop them but they started shooting at us,” he said.

After the attack, Christians fled into the nearby forest. “Many people were hurt,” Chakama said. “Some tribal leaders (pictured) organised demonstrations”.

As a result of the attack, the army torched the Baptist Church in Gongarama, that of Joralchori and the Christ Church in Desimon Chara, in Baghaichhari Upazila, about 400 kilometres from the capital Dhaka.

Soldiers are believed to have attacked a fourth church and a Buddhist pagoda as well. A Protestant clergyman in Mangamati, on condition of anonymity, said that “the situation is very tense; 41 homes have been set on fire [. . .], more than 500 families for about 1,800 people are now living in the deep jungle.”

The military moved in to stop clashes between local tribal minorities and Bangladeshi settlers. However, by its actions, it has exacerbated tensions. The conflict between the two groups began as a dispute over land in the early 1980s. At that time, the Bangladeshi government tried to settle thousands of Bangladeshi, mostly flood victims, in the hill region of Chittagong, igniting the conflict.

On Tuesday, the military on government orders harassed a group of journalists in order to prevent them from reporting the episode.

In addition, Clinton Chakama reported that suffering by locals includes “more than 100 children who are ill from water-borne diseases caused by pollution”. All of them are in need of urgent medical care.

Fr Robert Gonsalves, from St Joseph’s Church in Rangamati, said he and his congregation are praying for the “persecuted”. He stressed that the Church is close to the Christians and Buddhists victimised in the attack. He also insisted that Lent is also a time to keep in mind “forgiveness and the desire for justice and peace.”

Yesterday, the police chief in Rangamati visited the scene of the attack along with government officials and a minister. He said, “We shall do our best to guarantee security”. He did not however answer questions addressed by AsiaNews about the church burning and the harassment Christians had to endure.

“They promised food and security,” Clinton Chakama said, “but we know that those are meaningless words. They are not going to take any steps against the army”, which has a past of forcibly seizing land, torturing people and raping women.

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