Dhaka (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis started his visit to Bangladesh today. Not only will it be historic but so are the places that he will see.
The pontiff will start with the National Martyrs’ Memorial (picture 1) in Savar, 35 kilometres northwest of the capital. Here, he will pay tribute to the martyrs who gave their lives during Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 when the country became independent of Pakistan.
The conflict broke out when (West) Pakistan’s military junta launched Searchlight operation against the people of (East) Pakistan on the night of 25 March 1971.
Pakistan’s military began a policy of systematic elimination of Bengali nationalists among the civilian population, students, intellectuals, religious minorities and the Armed Forces. This included the cancellation of the 1970 elections, and the arrest of Prime Minister-designate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The war ended on 16 December 1971, when West Pakistan forces surrendered. India and the Soviet Union backed Bangladesh, and 1,661 Indian soldiers lost their lives in the conflict. West Pakistan counted on the support of China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
Many Christian freedom fighters were killed in the fighting and several priests and sisters helped them in the struggle to a different flag.
After paying tribute to the martyrs, the Holy Father will visit the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum where he will sign the Book of Honour. The museum is located in what was the residence of the founder and first president of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
He was killed with most of his family right in the residence, which is now a museum. In Bengali Bangabandhu means "friend".
Rahman was the country's first head of state. He also served as prime minister from March 1971 until his death in August 1975.
Thanks to his sacrifice and his capable leadership, the Bangladesh Liberation War led to the creation of a new country, separate from West Pakistan.
His daughter, Sheikh Hasina, is the current leader of the Awami League and Bangladesh's prime minister. The pontiff will visit the museum, and pay tribute to Rahman.
On the same day, in the evening, he will pay a courtesy call to the Bangabhaban, the official residence of the President of Bangladesh since independence and the site of important meetings and seminars. Later, the pontiff will meet with civil society groups and members of the diplomatic corps.
Tomorrow, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at Suhrawardy Udyan Park (picture 2), in downtown Dhaka, and will ordain 16 new priests. Here, on 16 December 1971, Pakistani Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi surrendered after he was defeated by Indian troops led by Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora.
The day of the surrender is celebrated in Bangladesh as Victory Day. That day, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made an historic speech about “Our struggle, this time, is a struggle for our freedom”, which encouraged Bengalis to prepare for the fight for liberation.
Afterwards, Pope Francis will visit the Apostolic Nunciature ahead of the meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She is working against extremists and under her leadership the country has pursued its development.
The Apostolic Nunciature is located in the Baridhara diplomatic district, where the pope will stay during his three-day visit. Since 1972, the Vatican has had close diplomatic relations with Bangladesh.
Card Patrick D'Rozario, archbishop of Dhaka, said that this unique relationship will be celebrated with joy during this visit. It is based on "human and spiritual values", in particular "love for humanity, for human life, for human rights", but also love for the poor, women and children, charity, health and education, the environment and interfaith dialogue.
On the same day, the pontiff will visit the home of elderly priests, which is located in Archbishop House in Dhaka’s Ramna district. An interfaith and ecumenical meeting for peace will be held in the garden. The larger compound includes the Archbishop’s Offices and St Mary’s Cathedral.
On Saturday, the last day of the trip, the pope will hold a private meeting at Mother Teresa's House in Tejgaon, inside the Holy Rosary Church complex (picture 3).
Here he will meet priests, religious and consecrated women and men; later, he will visit the cemetery of the church. The compound was established by Portuguese Augustinian missionaries in 1677. It is one of the country’s oldest churches thanks to missionaries from Portugal who sowed the seeds of the Christian faith.
Pope Francis’s last activity will take place at Notre Dame College (picture 4) in the capital. The Catholic school is one of the best in the country.
Many of the country’s lawmakers, lawyers, educators and journalists have trained there. About 90 per cent of its students are non-Catholics. Now, many of them play a leading role in the life of Bangladesh.