Hugh Fitzgerald: Pope Francis, Bangladesh, and “Inter-Religious Harmony” (Part Two)


LllIt’s not only  the Hindus in Bangladesh who have endured Muslim violence. Buddhists and Christians too have been victims of Muslim mobs. There are fewer than 600,000 Buddhists left in Bangladesh, almost all of them living in the Chittagong Hills Tract, the last surviving remnant of Buddhism in what was once an entirely Buddhist and Hindu land. This tiny group has been subject to repeated attack by Muslims over many years. Most recently, 25,000 Muslims took part in the  2012 “Ramu violence,” which refers to a series of attacks on Buddhist monasteries, shrines, and houses of Buddhist inhabitants. Muslim mobs destroyed 12 Buddhist temples and monasteries and 50 houses in reaction to a tagging of an image depicting the desecration of a Quran on the timeline of a fake Facebook account under a Buddhist male name. (The actual posting of the photo was not done by the Buddhist who was falsely accused; it appears to have been the work of a Muslim.) The violence later spread to the Cox’s Bazar District and the Chittagong District where Buddhist monasteries, Sikh Gurudwaras and Hindu temples were targeted for attacks. Inter-religious harmony?

This year, there have been the usual attacks, with a Buddhist monk hacked to death here, a few temples destroyed there, but not the mass violence by local Muslims against Buddhists seen in 2012. The steady stillicide of attacks, however, are enough to keep the small Buddhist community in Bangladesh in a state of permanent terror, for the Buddhists know that Muslim mobs can be whipped up over anything, including fake Facebook postings put up by Muslims pretending to be Buddhists, or Hindus.

As for the Christians, who constitute 0.3 percent of the population of Bangladesh, they, too, have been set upon by Muslims. A Christian man was murdered here, a Christian pastor had his throat slit there, a Christian church was attacked by Muslims. Year after year, a steady drip of murders and occasional destructive mayhem, just enough to keep the Christians in a state of permanent anxiety, or even terror.

“Bangladesh’s religious minorities have been facing attacks since the 2014 national election. During the elections, minority-dominated villages were the worst-attacked places, where individuals and groups associated with pro-Islamist parties looted and burned properties and residences owned by members of Hindu, Christian and Buddhist religions in different parts of the country. Some political parties deliberately ‘used the religious sentiments of ordinary people to intensify communal and religious tensions and polarizations for political advantages,” a pastoral solidarity team of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) was told by representatives of different religious groups in Bangladesh.”

“Members of the solidarity team were told that minorities in Bangladesh live in the midst of terror and fear. Extremist violence has been a recurring problem in the country, where religious minorities are intimidated, threatened, assaulted and killed by Islamic extremists’ intent on silencing dissenting voices.”

Does the Pope know what has been happening, continuously, for decades, to the “members of Hindu, Christian and Buddhist religions in different parts” of Bangladesh? Does he realize that the Muslims of Bangladesh have repeatedly attacked members of all three faiths, their houses, their temples, their churches? If he does not know anything about this, he is ignorant beyond belief. If he does know, then what explains his ludicrous praise of Bangladesh’s “inter-religious harmony”?

What if, instead of declaring that “inter-religious harmony” already exists in Bangladesh,  a palpable falsehood that does no one any good, Pope Francis were to say something else, such as “we will be visiting Bangladesh, to discuss with people of goodwill and of all faiths how best to encourage inter-religious harmony”? That’s a very different statement. It neither praises nor blames. It should be well-received by the secularist prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, of the Awami League. Even Pope Francis, in one of his lucid intervals, when he is not fulsomely praising Islam, should be willing to give it a try.

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