Dhaka, Fr. Kamal: Witnessing Christ through serving people

The priest is the pastor of Holy Rosary church, in the neighbourhood of Tejgaon. He explains what it's like to be a priest in an Islamic majority country. "People know us for our loving work." "We are part of the universal Church following the directions of the Holy Father." From our envoy on the ground.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) - Pope Francis "chose to visit the church of the Holi Rosary Church for a very precise reason: many civil and Christian leaders are buried there. In this way, even if he cannot go around the country, he wants to pray and show his closeness to the whole population" Fr. Kamal Corraya, pastor of Holy Rosary tells AsiaNews.

His words reveal the great emotion he feels born of "the joy of having him here". At the same time he also averts a great sense of responsibility: welcoming the pope to what is considered the "primary church" of Bangladesh, the only one where he will gather in prayer, on  December 2. "In 1986," the priest adds emotionally, "I was honoured to wash John Paul II's hands. I will have another opportunity to touch Pope Francis and welcome him to my church. "

The Church of the Holy Rosary is located in Dhaka, in the district of Tejgaon with a large Catholic presence. In the area there are numerous schools run by religious congregations, hostels, and even one of the homes of the nuns of Mother Teresa.

Fr. Kamal explains the reasons for the churches’ primacy. "It is the oldest church in Bangladesh, the largest parish of the capital with more than 25,000 faithful, and the one that offers the largest number of prayer services: every Sunday we celebrate 20 masses, not only in our church, but also in various chapels or sub-centres scattered around the city (such as Banani or the airport). Prayers are recited in Bengali, but we also have services for foreigners. "

The priest adds that the church "also has a great historical value". The original building - still present - dates back to 1677 and has undergone many restorations of ornamental pieces. It was built by the Portuguese Augustinian missionaries, who also erected one of the two Catholic cemeteries in the city. Inside the little church the oldest tombstones written in Armenian, Portuguese and Latin are still visible. The new building was erected in the 1940s and is next to the older one.

The characteristic that has led Pope Francis to choose this place to meet the religious of the country, explains Fr. Kamal, "is the presence of the cemetery. It is a historical monument. Here the first missionaries, priests and nuns are buried. By praying at the tombs of missionaries, it is as if he invites us all to be missionaries. And he wants to show us that he is here for all of us. Given that it cannot personally travel throughout the territory, he will bless a cemetery where ordinary people are resting, to bless us all in a symbolic way. He wants to bless the missionaries and to be close to the consecrated people of Bangladesh in prayer, physically and spiritually."

Not only that, many Muslims are also looking forward to meeting him, "including our employees, about 90% of employees, who are also working overnight so that everything is ready, painting, sweeping the driveway and preparing flowers for the church.”

But what does it mean to be a priest in a Muslim country. "We live as members of one family. – Fr. Kamal responds. “If Muslims or Hindus need help, we Christians are the first to give it. The same goes for us. " "The best way to witness the Gospel is through service, hospitals, humanitarian institutions, or missions."

Kamal remembers that in 1971, during the liberation war from Pakistan, "so many Muslims have found shelter in our churches. This has enabled the creation of relationships of friendship and affection. Still today we speak with those who were welcomed at that time. " He does not deny the existence of conflicts and tensions, "but this is also true of the relationship between Christians. There are disagreements, but in principle we live in a serene way and we are happy to be here in Bangladesh." According to the pastor, "Christians are truly respected. 90% of those working in our media centers are Muslims. They support us in a concrete way."

On the life of his parish, he reports that "we have more than 25,000 parishioners, mostly from rural villages seeking new opportunities in Dhaka. Every year we celebrate about 100-130 baptisms, which take place every Friday." The pastor explains that baptisms do not occur during "some special holidays such as Christmas or Easter. Friday is the holiday and rest day in our Muslim-majority country, so the faithful take advantage of them to come to church. For example, last week we welcomed nine Christians into the community. "

Speaking of Gospel witness, he states: "We are present among non-Christians through our service. There are not many in this country [about 600,000, of which 380,000 Catholics, ie 0.3% of the population of nearly 163 million inhabitants] but most people know us for our service. They really have a good opinion of us because they see that we are here to serve them. We have nurses in hospitals, operators in various associations. And we work well. Every time someone does his job well, he is asked, 'Are you a Christian?' This means that in the country it is well known that Christians work in the best of ways. "

The example of Christians continues, "Sometimes leads to conversions, because people want to be like us. They are interested in helping children, the poor, the marginalized. Sometimes it happens that conversions disturb the most extreme radicals, who are really small fringes. But in general if you live peacefully and in a serene manner, no one complains."

At this point he tells the story of a Muslim, "who saw a Catholic girl who had to undergo a very delicate operation at heart on television. She was in the hospital and the papers talked about her. The boy was so impressed that he decided to go to the hospital. There he saw that the young woman was supported by the whole community, that it was by her side from the physical and spiritual point of view. And his life changed, he wanted to convert. His family was opposed to it, they did not want him to, because in Bangladesh it is believed that those who change their belief produce misfortune for all relatives. Even his friends abandoned him. But he could not turn back: he had seen service, love, a human attitude towards a living being. "

According to Fr. Kamal, for a small Church like that of Bangladesh, one of the peripheries spoken of by Pope Francis, "the way to feel part of the universal Church is to follow the directions of the Holy Father. This makes us feel close, members of the same family. And it is the same universal Church that makes us feel part of it: when we have some problems, we get help from all over the world, such as Europe, Canada, the United States. The Church is not only a spiritual entity, but a material one. There is a mute exchange: foreign missionaries come here - the first were the Portuguese in 1677 - but now Bangladeshi missionaries go to other countries and there they carry Christ and the traditions typical of our culture, such as the 'bhojom' our sacred hymns. These relationships are mutually enriching." (ACF)