mistreatment of Muslim converts to Christianity in Bangladesh."
US-based Christian Freedom International (CFI), which conducted an investigation in the impoverished Asian nation, claimed former Muslims are persecuted throughout the country. "Bangladesh must stop the persecution of minority Christians," said CFI President Jim Jacobson.
"The country, by all accounts, is spiraling rapidly downward into the hands of Islamic extremists. Christians are not safe here, especially Muslims who convert to Christianity." In a statement published by CFI, 35-year old Shahjahan Mollah, said he had troubles pastoring his house church of 27 converts in the village of Butia, about 120 miles (192 kilometers) north of the capital Dhaka.
Shahjahan, a former Muslim, said he began his church after converting to Christianity in 1991, despite persecution. "When I became a Christian, I had to leave my family," Shahjahan was quoted as telling CFI. "My family hated me because I converted. They forced me to leave the house. I lose my inheritance. I had so much pressure from the Muslim society; I had to hide in a faraway district."
Shahjahan said he takes "incredible risks" to pastor his small church. "Still in our house church we cannot sing or pray too loud, we can’t have big groups. When we pray too loud or sing too loud, the Muslims from the area force us to stop. They destroy our Bibles and our song books. Sometimes they come in with sticks threatening to beat us. We never feel safe to practice our faith. "
The pastor said that like other converts to Christianity, he "prays for religious freedom," especially for minority Christians, in the mainly Muslim country of over 144-million people. "I would like to pray to the Lord that we would have the opportunity to serve the Lord without fear to practice our religion," Shahjahan added. "Practicing our religion, we must be so silent and secret, we feel so insecure. We want freedom of religion. We don’t want persecution."
He is among several coverts who choose to come forward with their story in recent weeks, BosNewsLife monitored. Last week news emerged that Islamic militants threatened to cut off the hands of students and teachers attending a Bible college in Bangladesh which was earlier forced to leave the country’s third largest town, Khulna, officials and human rights watchers said.
The threats came after "Islamic terrorists" forced the Grace Presbyterian Bible College in July to leave Khulna, a major commercial hub 375 kilometers (225 miles) southwest of the capital Dhaka, reported CFI. Earlier this month CFI said it had set up a "safe-house" for Muslim converts to Christianity in Bangladesh. 22-year old Abdul Gafur is among those staying at the "safe-house" at an undisclosed location outside Dhaka, studying to become a pastor.
"I have to hide from my relatives," said Abdul, who allegedly converted to Christianity two years ago, in remarks published by CFI, which supports persecuted Christians with aid and advocacy. "They are so unhappy that I have converted [and] tried to beat me. My uncle is a powerful leader in [the] Muslim society. They forbid me to go to my village saying they will kill me if I come back," Abdul was quoted as saying.
"I don’t hate my family, even though they hate me, I feel sorry for them because they don’t know what they do," he said. Reports of persecution of Christians comes at a time of growing violence. In August, 2005, there was a string of bomb attacks. There have also been deadly church bombings. The government, which long denied that it had a problem with militants, has outlawed two fringe Islamic organizations.
Secular human rights group Amnesty International (AI) said in a recent report that "among the main victims of the violence" in 2004, "were members of minority communities and politicians." In addition "human rights defenders continued to be harassed and attacked. Thousands of opposition activists were arbitrarily detained [and] at least seven people were executed," AI claimed.
Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh came into being only in 1971, when the two parts of Pakistan split after a bitter civil war which drew in neighboring India. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who came to power after an election victory in October 2001, had promised to contain lawlessness and violence.
But critics say the recent religious violence has shown that the four-party alliance led by her Bangladesh Nationalist Party has failed to deliver on these election promises. (With BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos, BosNewsLife Research and reports from Bangladesh).