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Churches in Bangladesh Face New Islamist Threats

FILE - Members of the police stand guard in front of a replica of Pieta at Holy Rosary Church in Dhaka.

More than two dozen priests and aid workers in Bangladesh say they have received death threats in recent weeks. Since early October, three priests also have reported they narrowly escaped attempts on their lives.

Those who sent the threats claimed that they belonged to the banned militant outfit Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Islamic State (IS).

The death threats were sent via mobile phone text messages, phone calls and postal letters to about 20 priests, one nun and a few Christian aid workers.

“Eat your most favorite foods now. Only five days of your life are left. Not more than that,” one text message sent to the mobile of Reverend Martin Adhikari, principal of Dhaka’s College of Christian Theology, on November 11 read.

A day later, another text sent from the same phone number read, “One day has gone by. Let us know if we have to arrange your burial as well. Or…will your family take care of your body?”

Last Wednesday, a letter, which by mail reached Reverend Barnabas Hemrom, a pastor of Rangpur Baptist Church, carried a threat for ten Christian priests of the area.

“You, the Christian leaders, will have to bid goodbye to this world very soon. We are going to finish off all, one by one, who are spreading Christianity in Bangladesh. This country will be ruled only by the (Islamic) Shariah law.”

Police guard churches

One of the ten priests who received threats through the letter said that he was scared for his life.

“Now police have been posted at our church following the threat. I am not going out of the church campus at all. I spoke to others who like me were targeted in that letter. They all are frightened.” The pastor, like several others who spoke with VOA, said he did not want his name disclosed because of fears over his safety.

Father Dominic Rozario escaped a fatal attack on his life after six masked men riding motorbikes raided his church in Manikganj district last Saturday.

“I was being trailed by some unknown people for some days. I am sure I would have been killed if I was present in the campus on Saturday…I believe those who are trying to kill the Christian religious leaders in Bangladesh are they who want to make it an Islamic theocratic country where they don’t even want non-Muslims to live in,” he said.

Father Rozario said this attitude overturns decades of peaceful relations among Muslims and Christians in Bangladesh, where most churches run schools, vocational centers and do charity work that helps many in the Muslim-majority country.

“We have excellent personal relationship with the Muslims around us,” he said.

FILE - A man injured in an attack on a Shi'ite mosque is carried for treatment in Bogra district, Bangladesh, Nov. 26, 2015.
FILE - A man injured in an attack on a Shi'ite mosque is carried for treatment in Bogra district, Bangladesh, Nov. 26, 2015.

Militants becoming ‘more organized’

Islamists in Bangladesh have threatened and killed some secular bloggers and free thinkers in the past years. But the trend of violently targeting the Christian priests is quite new in the country.

On November 18, unidentified gunmen shot and seriously wounded Italian priest Piero Parolari in the northern Bangladesh town of Dinajpur. IS claimed responsibility for this attack.

In October a bomb attack hit a Shi’ite Muharram procession in Bangladesh, killing two people. Police said last week that JMB militants had been behind the attack.

Last Thursday unidentified gunmen killed the muezzin of a Shi’ite mosque in Bogra district of Bangladesh. Recently, a Sufi Muslim leader was murdered and a follower of the Bahai religious community escaped a fatal attack in Bangladesh.

Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, says that the groups who attacked the bloggers, Shi’ite groups, Bahais and others are targeting the church leaders.

“Christians were attacked in Bangladesh for the first time in 2001, soon after the US attacked Afghanistan. After a long lull, the Islamists have begun targeting the Christians again and all of these latest attacks are parts of an organized strategy to create pressure on the minority community,” Dasgupta said.

"The Islamist militants began the campaign to Islamize Bangladesh in softer style many years ago. But now they have turned violent. And, more organized."

Police said that they were investigating to trace the culprits who are threatening the churches.

“As the churches and other Christian leaders sought, we have provided security to them,” said Muntasirul Islam, deputy commissioner of the media wing of Dhaka Metropolitan Police. “We are concerned with this spate of threats and attacks and we are investigating each case very seriously.”