Ethnic Christians in a remote and hilly village in Bangladesh are under pressure from Buddhists to renounce their faith after two mob attacks severely damaged a Baptist church, a pastor said.
Bawm Tribal Baptist Church in Sundrapara village, Rangamati district, was attacked on July 15 and 22 by dozens of black-masked men, said Jyotilaso Chakma, the church’s senior pastor.
The attackers demolished the brick wall of the church building, windows, doors and its tin roof during the first raid in the middle of the night, he said, adding that during the attack on July 22 , the door and the cross of the church had been broken.
Rangamati is one of three forest districts collectively referred to as Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in south-eastern Bangladesh, near the border with Myanmar and India.
The pastor said the attacks came after weeks of threats from Buddhists demanding the closure of the church and asking Christians to convert back to Buddhism.
“They not only demolished the church, but also told us to convert to Buddhism. They also threatened to prepare for the worst if we don’t convert or go to the police, ”Pastor Chakma, a Chakma, told UCA News.
Maybe I’ll have to flee to another neighborhood to save my life. I’m afraid for my family
Pastor Chakma said about 30 families in the village converted to Christianity from Buddhism in the church in 2008. Most fled the area due to pressure from Buddhists, but eight families still live in the area. village, he said.
Pastor Chakma said he lives in extreme fear with his family of nine.
“Maybe I’ll have to flee to another neighborhood to save my life. I am afraid for my family. The radicals could kill me and my family if we don’t convert, ”he said.
Anonda Bikash Chakma, 44, another Christian villager and father of four, said his family has also lived in fear since the attacks.
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“One of my children told me about the attack on July 15. I discovered that the church was badly damaged. It was a sad moment, ”he told UCA News.
He said a similar attack was carried out on July 22 and more damage was done to the church.
“They threatened us that if we didn’t go back to Buddhism, they would kill us. But I am determined that no matter what, I will remain a Christian, ”he told UCA News.
Pastor Chakma and Anonda both said the assailants were unknown to them. However, some media reported that the attackers were members of the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), an armed political party of the CHT.
Pinaram Chakma, the head of Sundrapara, said he was aware of the attacks and tensions in the Christian community, adding that he was mediating between Buddhists and Christians for peace.
“As far as I know, there has been no problem between Buddhists and Christians in the village since the church was established in 2008. I believe the violence was perpetrated by strangers. I am making efforts to bring peace by speaking to both Buddhists and Christians, ”Chakma, a Buddhist, told UCA News.
I am not aware of any allegations of church break-ins or forced conversions because no one came to report it to us
Police officer Mostofa Kamal, who is in charge of the Naniarchar sub-district which covers the village, said he was still in the dark about it.
“I am not aware of any allegations of church break-ins or forced conversions because no one came to tell us about them. If a complaint is made, we will investigate the matter, ”he told UCA News.
The Catholic Church strongly condemns such injustices against Christians as well as against all minorities and calls for justice for the violence, said James Gomes, coordinator of the Interfaith Dialogue Commission of the Archdiocese of Chittagong.
Bangladesh’s constitution allows everyone to have freedom of religion and anyone who attempts to restrict the right to religion or ruin the peace should be identified and punished, he said.
The CHT is home to more than a dozen ethnic groups, mainly Buddhists and a few Christians. Since the 1980s, the region has seen a massive influx of Bengali Muslim settlers under state-sponsored migration programs. Settlers have been accused of encroaching on the lands and livelihoods of ethnic communities, sparking sectarian tensions and violence.
A militia formed by ethnic groups began to attack Muslims and the security forces that supported them. In response, the government deployed the army, and a deadly bush war between insurgents and the military left hundreds dead over about two decades.
The bush war ended with the signing of the 1997 CHT Peace Agreement between the government and Parbattya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity (PCJSS), the main ethnic political party.
Despite the treaty, the region is still heavily militarized, while sectarian conflicts largely due to land disputes and deadly rivalries between armed ethnic groups are common.