01/11/2013, 00.00
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Catholics in Bangladesh hit by land expropriation and forced conversions to Islam

by Santosh Digal
A Jesuit, professor at the major seminary in Dhaka, explains the difficulties of the Christians and Catholics, often plagued by extreme poverty. Conversion to Islam for marriage increasingly widespread. In the era of communication and globalization, it is urgent to focus on young people.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) - Expropriation of land, conversion to Islam, deeper religious formation: these are some of the challenges that the Church in Bangladesh faces day after day. In an interview with AsiaNews, Fr. John Chinnappan SJ, professor of philosophy and theology at Holy Spirit Major Seminary in Dhaka, speaks of the problems of the Christian community, a minority of just 0.3% compared with 90% Muslim majority. The teacher engaged in social interaction and communications, describes a small church in number, but "vibrant in faith," which, however, must act more forcefully in the field of justice and human rights. Below the Jesuit's interview with AsiaNews.

What are the challenges facing the Church in Bangladesh?

Overall, the Church in Bangladesh is a minority. Despite this, it has a vibrant in faith. The Gospel of Jesus is rooted in the lives of Christians. In addition, it is a devoted church. Since the 15th century, with the evangelization of the Portuguese and European missionaries, there have been many expressions of faith through religious movements and associations, which have added vigor and vitality to the Church.

One of the greatest challenges for the Church is the issue of land. Most of the Christians are losing their possessions, which end up in the hands of others (mostly Muslim). In many cases, Christians have sold land in order for their children to study in big cities or abroad. Usually, when a family member moves, they do not return to their native land. In these cases, the family sells the properties and joins the relative abroad.

The Rohingya Muslims are another challenge, because they are always ready to buy the lands of the Christians. In addition, many villagers flock to Dhaka for various reasons. First, because there is more money in the capital, whereas in rural areas poverty is absolute. Thus, internal migration is rampant, but it is also growing towards other countries. My fear is that one day the majority of Christians in Bangladesh will find themselves without land, if the Church and civil society do not intervene as soon as possible.

So far, what the Church has done to resolve this situation?

Efforts have been minimal. Almost no priest or religious is committed to justice and human rights. I know of Fr. Joseph Gomes, Omi, director of the Committee on Justice, Peace and Integration of Creation (JPIC) of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

In my opinion, there is a great need to help people to defend their lands. They must be educated about what how valuable it is for their lives and their livelihoods. Members of the majority community [Muslims, ed] take possession of the land of the Christians taking advantage of their poverty and their minority status. Tribal Christians are even more fragile, loosing their lands to non-Christians. So, in both the cases, Christians are on the 'losing side.'

Concerted efforts and collective approaches have to be taken by church authorities. Otherwise, the land issue is going to be a 'big problem', along with other complex aspects of Bangladesh society. We are aware that it is a risky issue. The Church does not want to risk intervening in this matter. The main reasons is that church is basically centered on 'clericalism'. However, according to me, one of the most pressing needs today is faith education and faith formation for all, notably, the youth, who need prime focus in this age of communication and globalization.

Why do you feel a greater focus is needed on youth?

My observation is that many Catholic young boys and girls are being educated growing and living with majority Muslims. There are incidents that Catholic educated girls are getting married to educated young Muslims as they do not find many suitable or educated young Catholic boys. In this way, Catholic girls become Muslims upon their marriage. On the other hand, many Catholic educated youth get married to educated Muslim young girls. In this case too, Catholic boys become Muslims after their marriage. This is a big challenge as many Catholic youth convert to Islam on account of marrying a Muslim partner.

Can you mention at least one area where the Church has made an important contribution?

One of the best contributions of the Church to society is none other than "The Christian Co-operative Credit Union Ltd., Dhaka (in brief Dhaka Credit), Bangladesh". Let me explain.  In the early fifties, the Christian Community in Dhaka City was facing a severe economic crisis. Many were forced to borrow heavily from landlords or moneylenders who charged an exorbitant rate of interest on loans (10% monthly rate of interest). It was a precarious process. In order to improve the economic life of Christians, an American priest Fr. Charles J. Young, inspired by Archbishop Lawrence L. Graner CSC, founded the Christian Co-operative Credit Union Ltd., on July 03, 1955. What started with only 50 founding members in 1955, now it has become one of the biggest Cooperative Societies in Bangladesh in terms of membership as well as capital.  


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