KOLKATA, INDIA - Churches in Bangladesh skipped the traditional Christmas midnight mass services this year due to the increasing number of threats against Christian leaders, allegedly by Muslim extremists. Catholic houses of worship in the town of Dinajpur were among those that took the unusual step of opting out of holding the annual late night services because of security concerns voiced by the community.
“Several church leaders in Dinajpur have received death threats over the past weeks. Police advised us to remain as cautious as possible. All Catholic churches in this diocese decided not to hold mass at midnight this Christmas,” the bishop of Dinajpur, Sebastian Tudu, told VOA in an interview Thursday.
In Dinajpur, where unidentified gunmen shot and seriously wounded an Italian priest last month, services Thursday began at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon local time, ending before sunset.
Many Christian families across the country had told their community leaders this week that they would stay away from midnight mass this Christmas because they did not feel safe being out at night, said William Proloy Samadder, organizing secretary of the Bangladesh Christian Association, or BCA.
"We convened meetings and all church leaders agreed that the fears of the church members were not unfounded," he said. Samadder, who escaped an attempt on his life on Wednesday, said, "All churches in the country have been placed under unusually heavy police security this Christmas.”
Christians in Bangladesh constitute less than one percent of the population. The community has been living in fear after more than three dozen church leaders received death threats from Islamists. At least four church leaders narrowly escaped attempts on their lives in recent weeks.
Islamists in Bangladesh began targeting church leaders after killing four secular bloggers, along with a publisher, two foreign nationals, three Shi’ite Muslims and others.
In several threatening letters, the Islamists - who said they belonged to Islamic State as well as the banned militant outfit Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, or JMB - said they would kill all church leaders for “spreading Christianity” in Bangladesh.
The Christian leaders said the Islamists' accusation was baseless, saying the Christian population has remained almost static since the country became an independent nation in 1971.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met Bangladeshi Christian leaders Tuesday and assured them that Christians would be protected during Christmas.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said security for all churches, including 60 in Dhaka, would be increased with surveillance cameras and the deployment of additional police officers.
Festive spirit missing
The church leaders said the festive spirit was missing among most Christians.
“In Bangladesh, the churches are not engaged in any aggressive evangelical activity. They are well-known in this country for their service to the society. Some militant groups have robbed the spirit of this Christmas by unfairly targeting the Christian leaders,” according to BCA secretary general Nirmol Rozario, who said he received a death threat via a mobile phone text message on Tuesday.
Islamist militants bombed a Hindu temple in Bangladesh earlier this month after killing two Shi’ite devotees and one muezzin in separate bomb and gun attacks in October and November, he said.
"Many Christians fear that the militants are aiming to launch identical terror attack on churches…This is the first time in my life that I find Christians celebrating Christmas with such panic and fear."