03/30/2012, 00.00
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Conversion to Christ in Bangladesh: marriages, social dissatisfaction and the search for God

by Maria Gomes
Changing from one religion to another is a complex process where often material and spiritual interests are confused. Islam is the state religion, but the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the conversions are generally accepted. Legal pressures for Muslims who convert to Christianity. Among the tribal at least 10 years of catechumenate, to ensure genuine conversion.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) - Marriage, social dissatisfaction and the search for God: religious conversion in Bangladesh is divided according to these three fundamental issues in a climate of general tolerance. Although the vast majority of the population is Muslim (89.5%) and Islam is considered a state religion, the Constitution does not recognize Sharia law and guarantees full freedom of worship. However, despite being one of the more open Muslim countries, the social and cultural domination of the Islamic religion is such as to make Bangladesh a society full of contradictions, where conversions see the material interests of various kinds confused with a genuine spirituality.

The transition from one religion to another takes place in every direction, even if the main trend is from Islam to Christianity and not vice versa. When the reason is a marriage, it is not uncommon to see cases of Muslim girls marrying Christian, Buddhists or Hindus without converting. By itself, that Islam is opposed to a woman contracting marriage with a young man from other religions, but the legislation provides for mixed marriages. In these cases, problems arise in situations of conflict, since the rights of different religions apply to the field of marriage. In general, Islam prevails.

Conversion can also stem from a strong dissatisfaction with the original religious group, which results in varying degrees of tension. Feeling cut off from their religious communities, can lead a person to search for a different identity, sometimes simply to vindicate - a  real or perceived - mistreatment.

Sometimes there is in fact an interest that stems from "something" that is within the other religion, and this can take many forms: passing from Christianity (or Buddhism, or Hinduism), to Islam it is often the quest for greater social recognition. Having an Arabic name, in many cases it may make things easier, and a person is not very fervent in their faith they choose to convert. We know for example that the senior army officers must be Muslims. Those who pass to Christianity, however, often hope to receive support from NGOs and charities.

In the case of the tribals (Adivasi), the issue of conversion is different. Generally, it is very rare that a member of these communities turn to Islam. Instead there is a great attention to Christianity - Protestant and Catholic - and Buddhism. The tribals are now an ethnic minority and only count for 2% (against 98% of the majority Bengali) and they feel their cultural identity and traditional begin to crumble. Being part of the Islamic world would not bring them any great benefits, so they seek a foothold in those communities which, although relative, have their own strengths and specificities. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for them to turn to Christianity to receive aid, for their children's education, or care for their sick. Other times, the children are the ones who invite their parents to move closer to prayer, after studying in one of the many Christian institutions.

The tribals convert in a group and usually are entire families. For them, the catechumenate is very long and cautious, it has no fixed rules and is based on general guidelines of the Church and the experience of individual missionaries. In some cases, the path can even last 10 years. A Catholic priest told AsiaNews: "There must be a real transformation of life. When someone expresses his desire to become a Christian, I may ask for a whole year for prayer,  neither he nor I can make any formal commitment. If they attend, if they learn to pray, then we can begin the journey of formal catechumenate. When formation takes place slowly, it is very rare that converts go back on their choice. And it is wonderful to hear the reasons they give each other on why it is a beautiful thing to be Christian. "

In the past, especially with the Protestant churches, "hasty" conversions have caused problems worse than those that pushed the tribals to conversion, creating individuals, alone and disconnected from society. The problems and the greatest pressure, in fact, are not so much from the Bengalis - who generally ignore them - but from their own communities. When a family or a group decides to become Christian, it is experienced as a betrayal of their own culture and the converts meet with real discrimination: they are excluded from the meetings of the village government, forbidden to take water from the communal well, given no help when in difficulty.

From a legal standpoint, the conversion process is very simple: the law provides that convert goes to a notary presenting a written signed document, in which it states they have changed their religion for personal reasons, suffered no pressure , of their own free will. For any Christian, Buddhist or Hindu who wishes to become a Muslim, the procedure is almost a formality. In contrast, for a Muslim is not unusual to encounter pressure from the notary, who sometimes even refuses (illegally) to register the deed.

In all this, there is the position of the Church and the Catholic community, which is very prudent and even, sometimes, severe. Besides the understandable dissatisfaction if a young person decides to convert to Islam, those who choose to marry a Muslim without leaving Christianity experience great hardness. The church even provides the opportunity to receive a waiver from the practice of worship under certain conditions (which must be accepted by her husband), but the majority of the local clergy refuse to concede this.

The Church is ultimately cautious to accept conversions from Islam because of two main risks: the social pressure experienced by these people, who face obstacles of every kind, not least physical violence, creating a sort of limbo, where the converts find it difficult to fit into the new community (who looks at them with suspicion) and the rejection of the original one. The result, especially when it comes to "hasty" conversions, is of having unconvinced waverers rather than people born again in Christ.

While there is no official data, it is estimated that every year thousands of people in Bangladesh are converting to Catholicism.


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