Police said a Catholic priest who vanished during the week of Pope Francis’ visit to Bangladesh went into hiding willingly, but a Christian leader said the man was abducted and that clergy received a threatening email soon after.
Questions persist in the case of Father Walter William Rosario, who was found alive seven days ago at a bus station in northeastern Bangladesh, about 420 km (261 miles) or a 10-hour drive from his hometown of Natore in the country’s western region.
The priest is one of at least 11 people who vanished under mysterious circumstances since late August. The others, including a former Bangladeshi ambassador and a professor who specialized in the study of Islamic extremism, have not resurfaced since they were reported missing.
Police said they are investigating all the cases but have ruled out that Father Rosario was kidnapped.
“Nobody abducted him,” Biplob Bijoy Talukder, the police superintendent in Natore, told BenarNews.
“After having discussions with him, we concluded that he was suffering from depression. To get relief from the mental pressure, he went into hiding. After recovering him, we have handed him over to his brother’s care. The claim of abduction is false,” the police chief said.
Since ending up at the bus station in Sylhet district last Friday, the 40-year-old priest has been recovering in Rajshahi town from “mental exhaustion” and is in the church’s care. But he’s not talking to anyone now, according to Nirmal Rozario, president of an association that represents Bangladesh’s tiny Christian minority.
“Why should he tell a lie? We think it is an incident of abduction,” Rozario told BenarNews.
“After he went missing, a call came from an unknown number, asking for a few lakh [several hundred thousand] in ransom money. But later on, they did not contact [the family] again,” he added.
Father Rosario, a priest at the Banpara Catholic church and headmaster of St. Louis High School in Natore, was reported missing on Nov. 27.
At the time, he was preparing to lead a delegation of 300 parishioners to attend a papal mass in the national capital, Dhaka, on Dec. 1, Nirmal Rozario said. Pope Francis, the first pope to visit the majority-Sunni Muslim country in 31 years, landed in Bangladesh on Nov. 30.
“Two days before the pope’s visit, some of our priests received an email from an unknown contact. The email says, ‘you are busy thinking about the Pope’s security, but who will ensure your security?’” Rozario said.
“We informed police and RAB about the email, but as the pope’s visit was happening, we did not disclose the issue to the media,” he added, referring to Bangladesh’s elite security unit, the Rapid Action Battalion.
In recent years, members of Bangladesh’s Christian community have feared for their safety following small-scale attacks by suspected Islamic extremists. Such violence has unfolded against a backdrop of growing conservative Muslim fervor.
During his three-day stay, Pope Francis praised Bangladesh for its tradition of inter-religious harmony. While meeting with congregation leaders of various faiths, the pontiff encouraged them to uphold that tradition.
Amal Rosario, the brother of Father Rosario, spoke to BenarNews about his four-day disappearance.
“We are not sure whether he has been abducted or not. We don’t know how he went to Sylhet. We didn’t ask him anything about this,” he told BenarNews.
“He returned to us well and intact – that’s the main thing for us. Militants did not abduct him,” Amal Rosario said.
Ex-Diplomat goes missing
Meanwhile, a retired diplomat disappeared while on his way to the Dhaka airport to fetch his daughter, who was returning from Europe.
After leaving his house to head to the airport on Monday, Maruf Zaman, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Qatar and Vietnam, called home twice and instructed his maid to hand over his computer, phone, camera and other electronic devices to “a few people who will come to my home,” his daughter, Samiha Zaman, told BenarNews.
At around 8 p.m. the same day, three unarmed men who did not identify themselves, came to the house to search it and take away the aforementioned items, said his daughter, who had not arrived home from the airport.
Her father’s car was found parked in a street 4.8 km (three miles) from the airport. Maruf Zaman has not been seen since.
Police are investigating his disappearance, Monirul Islam, the chief of the Bangladeshi police’s counter-terrorist branch, told a news briefing the next day.
The ex-diplomat’s disappearance followed the case last month when Mubashar Hasan, an assistant professor of political science at the Private North South University in Dhaka and a scholar of extremism, was reported missing. A friend said the professor had feared for his safety in the days leading up to his disappearance.
Apart from the threat of abductions or attacks by Muslim extremists, the South Asian nation has been gripped by hundreds of cases of so-called “enforced disappearances” allegedly carried out by security personnel, according to Bangladeshi human rights groups.
As many as 545 people have been victimized by enforced disappearances during the past decade, according to one of these NGOs, Ain-O-Salish-Kendra (ASK). Of this number, the bodies of 78 people were recovered, while 51 people were found alive. The remaining 416 are still missing.
“We do not believe in abducting anyone. Our law enforcers have been discharging their duties sincerely. The allegation of pursuing a policy of ‘forced disappearance’ is completely baseless,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews last year.
“In many instances, we have investigated the cases of ‘forced disappearance’ and detected that they willingly went into hiding to embarrass the government internationally,” he added.