By Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario
For the Rev. Bernabas Hembrom, the month of December is the busiest time of the year. Usually, during this time, the pastor of the Baptist Church in northern Rangpur district makes frequent pastoral visits to some 1,700 members in local villages to prepare them for Christmas.
Yet, until this week, Hembrom has not made a single pastoral visit. Instead, he has confined himself to his residence.
This change took place after he and nine other Protestant ministers in the Rangpur region received anonymous death threats on Nov. 25.
“Fathers, priests, eat whatever food you want to by Dec. 20. And do not forget to say goodbye to your wives. The commander of Syria IS has sent a letter to us seeking your severed head. Soon we will send him your head as a gift,” the letter read.
“This time our plan is to kill one by one all those who are preaching Christianity in Bangladesh. Our country will be run only under Islamic laws,” it said.
The death threats came a week after the Nov. 18 shooting of Italian Father Piero Parolari in northern Dinajpur district. The group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the shooting.
Earlier, on Oct. 5, Luke Sarkar of the Protestant Faith Bible Church narrowly escaped death in northern Pabna district after alleged members of the banned Islamic militant group Jamaatul Mujahedhin Bangladesh (JMB) tried to slit his throat.
Over the past weeks, more than two dozen Catholic priests, Protestant ministers and Christian aid workers have received similar death threats like that of Hembrom through the mail, text messages and phone calls.
The government has provided security by offering police guards in front of churches and residences of clergymen. This, however, has not wiped away fear and insecurity.
“We are living in fear despite the police protection. I live on the church premises and don’t go outside anymore,” Hembrom told ucanews.com. “I’m concerned about the safety of my wife and children as they need to go outside for various reasons.”
The death threats has effected Christmas preparations this year, he says.
“I’m not sure how to celebrate Christmas this year. I’ve taken a vow to offer pastoral and spiritual care to followers, but I can’t do it properly right now,” Hembrom said.
Father Dominic Rozario escaped a possible attack recently when six masked men raided his residence Nov. 28 at Uthali Catholic Church in Manikganj district in central Bangladesh.
“I have been followed for sometime and that day they came to kill me.… These extremists want to instill fear among minority Christians by targeting their priests,” said Father Rozario, who until last month looked after 600 migrant Catholics.
Christians, the majority of them Catholics, comprise about 500,000 or .03 percent of the 160 million people in Sunni-Muslim majority Bangladesh, and are served by an estimated 400 Catholic priests and 1,000 Protestant ministers.
In 1998, a Muslim mob attacked and vandalized various Catholic and Protestant institutions including churches and schools in the Luxmibazar area of Dhaka over a land dispute between a Catholic school and a local mosque.
On June 3, 2001 a banned Islamic militant outfit Harkat-ul-Jihad (HUJI) bombed a Catholic Church in Gopalganj district during Sunday Mass, killing 10.
From secularism to sectarian terror
Bangladesh has long been known as a moderate Muslim country where followers of all religions live in communal harmony. Moreover, secularism is one of the four principles of the nation’s constitution.
However, the country has seen a series of Islamic extremist violence in 2015.
Four secular writers and a publisher were hacked to death in machete attacks allegedly by members of Ansaruallah Bangla Team, a banned local militant group presumably linked to al-Qaida.
In September and October, gunmen shot dead an Italian aid worker in Dhaka and a Japanese man in Rangpur.
The fatal shootings of foreigners were followed by the bombing of a major annual gathering of minority Shias in Dhaka on Oct. 24, which left two people dead and dozens injured. A month later, gunmen opened fire on devotees in a Shia mosque in northern Bogra district, killing one and seriously wounding three.
The IS has taken credit for the attacks on the foreigners including the Catholic priest and the Shias, while al-Qaida claimed responsibility for attack on bloggers and freethinkers.
Hindus, who make up the country’s second largest minority group accounting for about 8 percent of the population, also came under sectarian attack in recent weeks.
On Dec. 5, several bombs exploded during an annual feast at the famous Kantajew temple in the Kaharul area of Dinajpur district, leaving six people injured. Five days later, a nearby temple came under bomb and gun attack, leaving nine people hurt.
Ruling Awami League government officials have brushed aside possible links to international terror groups. Instead, government ministers blamed it on local militant groups linked to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its radical ally the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party.
This wave of terrorism is an influence of global religion-based terrorism and war, and it puts the country’s long history of communal harmony at stake, security analysts say.
“There were so-called homegrown extremist outfits like JMB in the country in the past, but they didn’t plunge into sectarian violence. The main reason behind attacking minorities might be to destroy communal harmony,” says retired Brig. Gen. M. Sakhawat Hossian, a Dhaka-based security analyst.
“Divisions and fighting between political parties have created a vacuum in the country for local extremists groups to exploit…. Power or force can never solve this problem, but national unity surely can,” adds Hossain.
A way to take revenge
Attacking minority Christians in Bangladesh might be a way to take revenge for the West’s war on terror in the Middle East, a Catholic bishop says.
“Christians came under threats from radical Muslims when the U.S. invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. Now, the extremists are targeting Christians because the West is at war with IS and local extremists think it’s their duty to take revenge here,” says Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, chairman of the bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.
“Their main agenda is to set up an Islamic state but they can’t do it by killing few Christians and Shias, but at least they want to draw international attention by doing so,” adds Bishop Rozario.
Catholic rights activist Rosaline Costa says Christians are targeted for their continuous good works.
“Christians are small in number but they are spread across the country. They try to educate and enlighten minds of people with education, health services and development activities. This is why extremists consider them as a threat to their Islamic agenda,” says Costa, coordinator of the Dhaka-based Hotline Human Rights Trust.
As the clergymen reel from fear and insecurity, prayer and protection are their last resorts, Hembrom says.
“All we can do is to pray to God … because it’s our only weapon. Police protection brings us comfort, and we also need to remain cautious for our safety,” he says.