Education, health and door-to-door pastoral care among Tribals in the new diocese of Sylhet
by Nozrul Islam
Interview with Mgr Bejoy Nicephorus D’Cruze, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, who was appointed bishop of Bangladesh’s seventh diocese. Local Catholics number 17,000 and work in tea gardens, which cover much of the region. The diocese lacks everything: cathedral, bishop’s residence, seminar, hospitals and schools.
Sylhet (AsiaNews) – Education, health and door-to-door pastoral care are the goals Mgr Bejoy Nicephorus D’Cruze set out for himself. He is the bishop of the newly created diocese of Sylhet, the seventh in Bangladesh. He took office on 30 September after serving as bishop of Khulna, a place radically different from Sylhet. The new diocese covers the districts of Sylhet, Sunamganj, Habiganj and Moulvibazar, a mostly hilly region of tea gardens where most of the 17,000 Catholic Tribals live and work. A tiny minority, 0.1 per cent of a total population of 8,200,000 people (85 per cent Muslim and 15 per cent Hindu); Catholics live in conditions of extreme poverty and ignorance. Created on 7 July, the new diocese can count on 6 parishes, 11 missionary centres and 21 priests. It has its work cut out because it is short of everything, cathedral, bishop’s residence, seminary as well as schools and hospitals. Nevertheless, Catholics now “can feel better supported” and will “find again their Christian identity”. Here is the interview with Mgr Bejoy, Oblate of Maria Immaculate, with AsiaNews.
Sylhet is a new diocese. What did you find and how is the current situation?
I took over on 30 September. My life in Sylhet is just starting. At present, there are six parishes with 21 priests, Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and others from the Congregation of the Holy Cross (CHC), as well as nuns from women’s congregations. Everything else has to be created, cathedral, bishop’s residence, seminary, not to mention schools and hospitals. Right now, I and another priest are renting a place.
Sylhet is a tribal diocese. Out of a population of about 8,200,000, some 17,000 are Catholic. With such a small tribal community, employed mostly in tea plantations, there is a lot to do. However, relations with Muslims and Hindus are peaceful.
Your Excellency, before Sylhet you were bishop of Khulna. What are the differences?
The situation is very different, especially in terms of culture. In 2005, when I was appointed bishop of Khulna, I had a diocese that had been created 60 years earlier and so was already well established. It had a bishop’s residence, secretariat, hospitals, schools, institutions devoted to other communities. Beside, the diocese’s Catholics were Bengali, not tribal. Finally, people and other communities already knew about the diocese of Khulna, especially Muslims who respect a lot the Catholic Church and use its services, which are available to everyone.
Here, people are tribal and I am Bengali. They do not have real schools, nor any big hospital. There are some dispensaries run by the sisters of Mother Teresa, and other small organisations that help people. We have different cultures but I have worked in the diocese in the past. Thus, I know these people and they know and trust me. They want me be to their bishop and I am happy to do it.
What will be your first objectives?
As a bishop in a Muslim country, I want to preach the word of God, evangelise my people and let other communities know about Christ. However, evangelisation is difficult and Muslims and Hindus often refuse meetings with the Catholic religion. The Catholic Church, in Bangladesh, is known for its services, which are open to all communities. Education will be my first goal. I also want to focus on health care: dispensaries, doctors, nurses . . . . Tribal people are very poor and often cannot visit village doctors. They must be educated about health care. For this reason, I am going to ask Caritas, which is present in the area, to provide essential services.
How will the creation of the diocese of Sylhet boost the Church presence in Bangladesh?
Originally, Sylhet was part of Dhaka diocese. But the cities are 300 kilometres apart in a country, Bangladesh, where roads are hard to travel. Some areas are isolated. In such circumstances, bishops cannot conduct regular pastoral visits. Now I live locally and thus I have an opportunity to visit every Catholic in the diocese. People will feel better supported and, in addition to new services, will be able to find again their Christian identity. Bangladesh’s Catholic community will be better recognised.
With Sylhet, Bangladesh will have seven dioceses. I am grateful to Pope Benedict XVI who thought about our small community of 17,000 Tribals who lead a peaceful life in the northern hills of the country. Catholics will be better treated. I am proud to live in Sylhet.