Christians in Bangladesh are expressing deep anxiety as Christmas approaches, amid a flurry of Islamist attacks and death threats targeting community members.
“We are going to celebrate Christmas with fear. The Christians in Bangladesh were never targeted for their faith” in the past, Nirmal Rozario, a Catholic and general secretary of the Bangladesh Christian Association, told BenarNews.
But since late September, priests and worshippers have been attacked, and there have been at least 28 threats issued against Christians or their churches, he said.
This week Patrick D’Rozario, the Catholic archbishop of Dhaka, led a Christian delegation that raised concerns about the mounting threats during a meeting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
“She assured us [of security] and recognized our contribution to Bangladesh,” the archbishop told BenarNews after Tuesday’s meeting.
Never so afraid
Community leaders have asked the government to deploy security forces at churches to protect members of Bangladesh’s 500,000-strong Christian minority, which represents well under 1 percent of the country’s population of 168.9 million.
Until now, the predominantly Sunni-Muslim nation had enjoyed relative peace and calm among its various faith groups, locals say.
“We have never been so afraid of celebrating Christmas like this year,” Fr. Albert T. Rozario, a Catholic priest at the Holy Rosary Church in Dhaka’s Farmgate neighborhood, told BenarNews.
Fr. Albert said his congregation was taking precautions to safeguard worshippers at Christmas services.
“We have adopted some additional security measures to back up the law enforcers’ initiative ... There will be more archways, security checks, closed-circuit cameras and security volunteers in the crowd,” he said.
Violent militant activity has intensified this year in Bangladesh. In 2015, suspected Islamists killed four secular bloggers and a publisher, and attacked members of other religious minorities, including Shiites and Hindus.
The so-called Islamic State group claimed the murders of an Italian aid worker and a Japanese farmer in Bangladesh in late September and early October.
‘Get ready for death’
Among the recent threats against Christians, Tapan Sarker, a priest in northern Lalmonirat district, got a letter Dec. 13 warning he would be decapitated if he kept spreading the word of Christ, said Mahfuzur Rahman, the officer-in-charge of the area police station.
The local force has assigned officers to guard the church from any attacks, Rahman said.
And on Tuesday night, two Catholic priests in different districts in the northeast received death threats via text messages sent from the same mobile phone in Dhaka, police said.
“The gist of the message was: you enjoy and get ready for death,” Mohammad Shajalal, the police superintendent in Moulvibazar district, told BenarNews.
In other incidents, Italian priest Pero Parolari was shot and wounded by gunmen riding a motorbike in northern Dinajpur district on Nov. 18.
On Oct. 5, Luke Sarker, a pastor in Pabna district in northwestern Bangladesh, survived after strangers entered his home and attempted to slit his throat.
“We have never faced a situation like this year’s. This is a horrific year for us,” Albert Philo, a catechist at a Protestant church in the northwestern district of Naogaon, told BenarNews.
A little more than two weeks ago, a group of unknown assailants set fire to a room just a few feet from his residential quarters inside the church compound, he said.
Over the past two months, he said, five groups came by the church to question clergy about why they were converting people to Christianity.
So far, no Christians have been killed in Bangladesh. But, since October, three Shiites have died in Islamist attacks, and two Hindus were wounded in an attack by gunmen at a temple in Dinajpur.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said authorities were taking the threats seriously, and would ensure that Christians were safe during one of their religion’s most important holidays, by deploying patrols to churches. He did not give specific numbers.
“Yes, they are in fear of [celebrating Christmas], but we have already provided them maximum possible security. Our police and other law enforcers have been alerted so that the Christians can celebrate the Christmas without fear,” the minister told BenarNews.