Human rights defenders from Bangladesh, gathered in a meeting sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC), are calling the international community’s attention to the severe persecution of Bangladesh’s religious and ethnic minorities.
They identified the rise of religious extremism, fundamentalism and lack of security as some of the major reasons behind human rights violations in the country.
Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, has some 20 million people belonging to religious and ethnic minority communities. However, the number has come down since the country’s independence in 1971.
These issues were raised by Bangladeshi human right activists in a meeting on “human rights and human security in Bangladesh”. The meeting was organised by the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs and the Bangladesh Minority Council and took place on 26 March in Geneva, Switzerland.
In the meeting, the WCC programme executive for human rights, Christina Papazoglou, highlighted the long-standing support of the WCC for churches, faith-based and civil society organisations in Bangladesh in their struggle for the protection and promotion of human rights, especially in relation to minorities. “It is our hope that this meeting helps to strengthen and enhance partnerships and networks for the effective advocacy of human rights in the country,” said Papazoglou in her opening remarks.
Tarun Kanti Chowdhury, president of the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council in Sweden, said that persecution of minorities in Bangladesh is not an “overnight crisis” but is a phenomenon deeply rooted in the history and politics of the country.
Chowdhury cited several examples of violation of the human rights of minorities, such as land grabbing, kidnaps, sexual violence against women, forceful conversions to Islam, desecration of places of worship and discrimination related to access to education, business and employment.
Chowdhury called for responsible actions from the government to address these issues. He said, “When the state appears to be the best patron of the process of discrimination, injustice and violation, it promotes an atmosphere of impunity.”
The participants also identified women as the “worst victims” amidst violence against Bangladesh’s minorities. Sister Rosaline Costa, executive director of the Hotline Human Rights Trust on Bangladesh, said that the religious and ethnic minorities have always been targeted by the political parties for their own gains and especially by Islamic fundamentalist groups.
Women in such situations, Costa said, suffer more and rarely get any protection from the local government authorities or law enforcing agencies.
“We, the members of the religious and ethnic communities in Bangladesh fear that if this trend continues, within a very short span of time, the existing small number will vanish from the country,” Costa warned.
She therefore stressed the importance of an intervention from the United Nations Human Rights Council to protect the rights of minorities in Bangladesh. She said that an independent investigation into the cases of violence against minorities should be conducted, and perpetrators should be brought to justice.
Shariar Kabir, president of the Gathok Dalal Nirmul Committee in Bangladesh, stated that the “elements of humanism are present in all faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, aimed at improving human lives”.
He said that political use of Islam in Bangladesh is a distorted version of the religion, instigated by the Islamist parties for their own gains. Such use of religion has led to violence against minorities in Bangladesh and has the potential to create a backlash on religious communities in neighbouring countries.
Kabir said that dialogue is important because it can bring religious leaders together and can help them address the issue of violence against minorities.
“We want to promote interfaith dialogue so that we can encourage the ways in which people of different faiths can live together peacefully,” he said.
The WCC General Secretary, the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit assured meeting participants of the WCC’s commitment to working with churches and interfaith partners in Bangladesh for the protection of minority rights, as part of the “pilgrimage of justice and peace”, a call to action from the WCC’s recent assembly in Busan.
Among other panelists in the meeting were Jenny Lundström, human rights activist from the Netherlands; Rabindra Ghosh, lawyer and president of Bangladesh Minority Watch; Abdullah Al Noman, film producer; Samia Zaman, editor and chief executive officer of the Ekkattor TV; Shaheen Reza Noor, senior journalist at Daily Ittefaq and Rahman Khalilur from Bangladesh Manobadhikar Commission.
The meeting was also attended by Mr. Md Abdul Hannan, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the permanent mission of Bangladesh to the UN Office and other international organisations in Geneva.