The educated laity must leave their cocoons and stand up for democracy and the rights of the poor
Bangladeshi Christians who account for less than half percent of some 165 million inhabitants in the country pray during an Easter Mass in Dhaka on April 8, 2007. (Photo: AFP)
After three unusually quiet years, political fever is back in Bangladesh, also in India and Pakistan, with major parties engaged in confrontational politicking, mudslinging, and violence ahead of national elections next year.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has staged a series of political rallies that drew tens of thousands of people frustrated over high inflation resulting in soaring food and fuel prices, endemic corruption, and the muzzling of free speech under the ruling Awami League regime.
The huge rally turnouts made the Awami League leadership nervous, and it organized counter-rallies, although they attracted smaller crowds. The Awami League has been in power since 2009, winning two elections in 2014 and 2018, and surviving allegations of poll manipulation and rigging.
Hopes for a peaceful election are still elusive in the Muslim-majority nation, given the country’s 52-year democracy record of poll-time violence and rigging.
If trends are any indication, the Awami League would be set to lose in a free and fair election. The party, despite calling itself center-left and secular, has been accused of authoritarianism. Its majority in parliament has been misused to push through legislation and policies to appease Muslims to win votes and cripple constitutional bodies like the Election Commission to manipulate polls.
Each time it came to power making a host of promises to better the lives of religious minorities such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, but did nothing notable. The party won the overwhelming support of religious minorities in the last three elections but its tenure, ironically, has seen more violence directed against minorities.
"Many tribal Christians have had land disputes stemming from land grabs by Muslims dragging on for years"
The center-right BNP has been allied for decades with Islamist parties that are feared by religious and ethnic minority groups. The BNP and its Islamist allies have a history of attacking minority communities for not voting for them.
As the polls draw near, minority groups led by Hindus, the country’s largest religious minority, are pressing the government to fulfill a host of pre-election pledges including ending the repression of minorities.
They also want a law protecting religious minorities from violence, and another to end the discrimination they suffer in social and cultural spheres. They are also pressing for a "minority ministry" to protect their interests.
Another demand is the full implementation of the Vested Property Return Act, a law that allows the return of religious minority properties confiscated by the state since 1965.
A controversial law, earlier known as the Enemy Property Act, was enacted in 1965 when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan (1947-1971). The law allowed authorities to confiscate the properties of individuals deemed enemies of the state. The law to return these properties was passed in 2001 but is still not implemented fully.
Many Christians have properties listed as Vested Property, but are unable to claim ownership, and even transfer properties due to unresolved bureaucratic and legal issues. Hundreds of tribal Christians have land disputes stemming from land grabs by Muslims dragging on for years. The disputes lead to violence and deaths.
In fact, Christians in Bangladesh have plenty of issues that require serious political attention as in India and Pakistan.
Even so, except for a few Christian leaders and activists, they are largely missing from the political scene. For example, Bangladesh’s estimated 600,000 Christians, who make up less than half a percent of some 165 million people in the country, are too reticent as if they have no problems whatsoever.
In some parts of the country, tribal Christians, just like lower-caste Hindus, still face ostracism and discrimination from Muslims and Hindus. Anti-discrimination legislation is expected to address the issue, but we don’t see Christians pressing for the law that has been pending for years.
Christian worship places have been attacked and vandalized, but cases have been passed off as isolated incidents. Last Christmas, a Muslim man was caught placing a Quran inside a cathedral. If a Christian committed a similar act, hell could break loose. But the authorities simply hush up these cases.
There have been attacks on and demolitions of under-construction Christian worship places. In the restive Chittagong Hill Tracts, Islamic groups have made baseless allegations against Christian missionaries and charity groups, accusing them of Christianizing the region through conversions.
"There is a serious lack of political engagement and activism among Christians in the country"
The worst attack against Christians was the bombing of a Catholic Church in 2001 by an Islamist extremist group that left 10 Catholics dead and dozens injured. The case remains unresolved more than two decades on.
It is disappointing that Christians, who have made vital contributions to nation-building through education, healthcare, and social development, are still struggling to enjoy rights, justice, and dignity.
It is time to look at the root causes, which are common across South Asia, particularly in the three most populous nations — Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — which will all hold general elections in 2024.
First, Christians are numerically insignificant and so politically ignored. In Bangladesh, for example, they are not a voting bloc except in three of a total of 300 constituencies. Out of 23 parliamentarians from minority groups only two are Christian. Minority MPs are more inclined to tow the party line than make efforts for their communities.
Second, there is a serious lack of political engagement and activism among Christians in the country. Christian leaders do not go beyond the local level as most Christians think mainstream national politics is not their cup of tea. The leadership of the Church does not seem to think it important to enable their people for politics.
Third, Christians continue to live in cocoons with a ghettoized mentality. They keep a safe distance from national issues such as rights abuses against poor, backward, and minority communities and often do not take a stand on national issues. They are silent on all controversial or repressive policies or laws. This attitude makes Christians politically and socially irrelevant.
Fourth, leaders of the hierarchy project themselves as authentic Christian leaders but shy away from taking a political stand for the community, presumably because of a canonical ban against clerics getting involved in politics. The crushing clericalism that pushes hierarchs into front rows, and their resultant inability to promote lay leadership, has left the Christian community leaderless in politics.
The Church’s educational institutions boast of producing top-quality professionals, including leading national-level political leaders. The connections clerics enjoy with such leaders blind them from seeing a system failure: these political leaders unceremoniously ignore and abandon the clerics in matters of their community.
"South Asian Christians are a taken-for-granted community by both hierarchs and political parties"
Even six decades after the Second Vatican Council stressed lay leadership, and bishops in Asia parroting it ad nauseam, we don’t see the clericalist hierarchy doing something worthwhile to encourage lay leadership, neither in the Church nor in politics. One wonders if the clerics are afraid that a change in the status quo will challenge their leadership.
By and large, South Asian Christians are a taken-for-granted community by both hierarchs and political parties, it is particularly so if the community is economically poor. The hierarchs expect them to be submissive, and the politicians ignore them as irrelevant.
What is the way out for Christians in religion-based politics, which is gaining strength in the peculiar South Asian democratic process, where the height of political victory is inversely proportionate to the depth of appeasing the majority religion?
The educated Christian laity should come out of their cocoons, inspired by the teaching of Vatican II that their proper vocation is in the secular world — in homes, neighborhoods, cities and the countryside. They need to understand that standing up for democracy and the rights of the poor is as important as the Eucharist. The Bible tells us that rushing to worship God, and ignoring the injured on the way, is meaningless.
They need to join with truly secular political parties to end, or at least to lessen, the impact of religion-based politics and to establish truly secular democratic communities. When Christians become part of the larger national community, and national politics looks beyond narrow religious interests, we will no longer need to speak about the interests of religious minorities or of Christian interests in particular.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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