Fifty Years of Independence in Bangladesh
Brother Abraham* has been an Open Doors partner in Bangladesh for many years, and as the country celebrates its 50th anniversary on March 26th, we asked him about the situation facing Christians.
In 26 March 2021 Bangladesh will celebrate 50 years of independence. How were Christians involved in the fight for independence?
Though very few Christian actually joined the fighting, they helped people. They provided food for the needy, they provided shelter for those who were escaping because of the situation. Many people were helped by the Christian community.
How did the situation change for Christians in Bangladesh after the country became independent?
After independence the Christians started to evangelize, they started to spread the gospel all over Bangladesh, because in the constitution, we have freedom (of religion). At that time, many Christian leaders were also part of the government.
Christianity was spreading all over Bangladesh, not rapidly in 1971 or 1972, but slowly and gradually. Many churches were built in different parts of Bangladesh, and some new denominations came into Bangladesh.
What is the situation like for Christians in Bangladesh today?
We have constitutional freedom. Those who were brought up Christian, they don't face problems. Bangladesh is a country where all people from different religious background are living together, it’s a community-based people in Bangladesh. 90 per cent of people are Muslim, and around nine per cent are Hindus, and less than one per cent are Christians, but Christians live together with the community.
The problem is that, when they want to do evangelism, that creates problems from the community. In our constitution we can evangelise, we can share our faith, but in practice, it’s difficult.
Many people are coming to Christ from the majority (Muslim) background. Then persecution occurs immediately from the family, from the extended family, from their community. Sometimes, from the government officials, also local officials. Children face discrimination in the schools, by their friends, by their classmates, even sometimes by the teachers.
Persecution is everywhere, but in different forms.
How do believers usually come to faith in Christ?
Praise the Lord, people are coming to faith in Jesus and they are gradually growing both in number and in faith. Some of them have come to Christ through local evangelists, some through friends, family members, neighbours, and some through seminars and conferences.
God is really at work in Bangladesh, especially among the believers from Muslim backgrounds. There are many Muslims who are seekers, they are seeking assurance of salvation. In Islam, there is no assurance of salvation, and this uncertainty leads people to search for assurance of salvation. In searching for salvation, these people study the Quran and many different books, including the Bible, and thus they find assurance of salvation in the Bible.
These believers feel a burden and passion to share the good news of salvation with their loved ones and neighbours. Even through persecution, people come to know about Jesus Christ and finally the persecutors follow Jesus Christ. God is also raising local leaders from among the believers from Muslim backgrounds who are very passionate about sharing the gospel and have a burden for the Muslim community. These people are unstoppable for God’s kingdom.
This is only possible because God is at His work to bring this nation into His saving grace.
Can you tell us more about the believers from Muslim backgrounds in Bangladesh and the challenges they face?
Around 80 per cent of believers from Muslim backgrounds come from poor families, who live under the poverty level. Most of them are without education. But, of course, there are a few believers who come from rich and well-educated families.
If we go back 30 years ago, most of the believers from Muslim backgrounds are uneducated and poor. Now, there are many believers from Muslim backgrounds who are studying in college and university.
Unfortunately, believers from Muslim backgrounds are not that welcomed and accepted by the mainline (traditional) churches. Since Muslims are the majority in the country, the believers from mainline churches think, if they open up their churches to these believers from Muslim backgrounds then persecution will come to their members.
But nowadays the realization of the importance of believers from Muslim backgrounds is gradually growing among the traditional ministers, and we are working on building bridges between them.
Sadly, several believers from Muslim backgrounds have been abducted by extremist groups in the past year. Can you tell us why these extremist groups target these believers?
It is sad that a few believers, those who came to Jesus Christ from Muslim backgrounds, have been kidnapped by extremist groups because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
When a Muslim converts to Christianity, they (the extremists) consider this to be dishonouring Islam. When a believer gets kidnapped, it sends a strong message to the other believers or those who are preparing to follow Jesus Christ, that they will be persecuted or kidnapped in the same way if they do not renounce their faith in Jesus. This fearful panic spreads quite quickly among the people. Thus the extremists work to stop conversion and to bring back the new believers to Islam.
Timeline of Events
August 14 1947 – Under the British Empire, the country we know today as Bangladesh was a part of India. In August of 1947, India is split into two different countries – India and Pakistan, with modern day Bangladesh being part of this new state, Pakistan. This is also the end of British rule in the region.
India and Pakistan are divided along religious lines, with the majority of Hindus living in the area that became India, while the areas where the majority of inhabitants are Muslims come under Pakistan. This religious divide enforces the idea that Christians (and other minorities) do not belong in these countries.
Bangladesh is known as ‘East Pakistan’, while the area we call Pakistan today is known as ‘West Pakistan’. While more people live in East Pakistan, West Pakistan has more political and economic power. People in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) soon feel that they are facing discrimination from those in West Pakistan.
1948 – The political leaders in West Pakistan declare that Urdu, the language spoken in West Pakistan, is the official and common language for both provinces, and try to force people in East Pakistan to use it. East Pakistani leaders and citizens demand that Bangla, the language spoken in East Pakistan, becomes the official and common language for both provinces, since more of the country’s citizens speak Bangla.
February 21 1952 – Students, teachers, and other members of the public march on the streets of East Pakistan to demand that Bangla be made the official language of Pakistan. The military are brought in to control the protests, killing several people and injuring hundreds of others. This day is later commemorated as Mother Language Day in Bangladesh.
1956 – Pakistan officially becomes an Islamic Republic. Islam becomes the source of legislation and the cornerstone of national identity. Sharia (Islamic law) is implemented, marginalizing Christians and leading to intense persecution.
March 25 1971 – The Pakistani military begin to attack East Pakistani people who support independence for East Pakistan. They also arrest Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the political party the Bangladesh Awami League (Bangladesh People’s League).
The War of Independence begins. During the war, some Christians fight, and some provide food and shelter for Bangladesh’s fighters. Christian villages in some places are burned down and some Christians are tortured and killed for helping the fighters.
March 26 1971 – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declares East Pakistan the independent state of Bangladesh. This is the date that is commemorated as Bangladesh’s independence day.
December 16 1971 – West Pakistan surrenders and the war ends.
November 4 1972 – The constitution of Bangladesh is adopted. People are given the right to practice their faith freely, and Bangladesh is declared a secular state. This constitutional right allows Christians to work more freely and widely.
August 15 1975 – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the President of Bangladesh, is assassinated by the military. In order to increase support for the military, the rulers play on religious sentiments, and Christians are marginalised once again.
June 1988 – Islam is made the official religion of Bangladesh again through a constitutional amendment.
Open Doors in Bangladesh
When did OD begin working in Bangladesh? What kind of work was OD doing in the country when it first began partnering with local churches?
In 1993 and ‘94, there was research done by OD in Bangladesh with the Christian community. Then in 1995 they started to work slowly. In the beginning there was distribution of Bibles, and also some support for the institutional church and Bible schools. They bought computers for Bible schools. Later on they started a pastor’s conference with the National Christian Fellowship of Bangladesh. That's an umbrella organisation that represents almost 20 denominations in Bangladesh.
How has the work of OD and its local partners changed and grown since it first began?
In the beginning they started working with mainline churches, because during that time there were very few believers from other backgrounds, especially Muslim backgrounds. They started with two partners, three or four partners in Bangladesh.
Then slowly the ministry started to increase in the country because of the need. Persecution started when many people from the majority (Muslim) background started following Christ. When local people started to evangelise, every day the numbers of new believers were increasing.
Then in 2006, the researchers and OD have seen that the Muslim believers are increasing day by day. They tried to give more emphasis to the new believers, especially Muslim background believers, and to expand the ministry in Bangladesh.
Then OD started to increase the number of projects all over Bangladesh and the number of partners also increased. Now they have so many projects, they cover almost 50 districts of Bangladesh out of 64 districts. OD has distributed so many Bibles, like 10 to 20,000 Bibles in the last couple of years.
If we look back to when I first partnered with the ministry, the budget has increased 10 times.
How does OD support persecuted believers in Bangladesh today through partners like you?
In Bangladesh, we serve believers from all backgrounds – Muslim background believers, Hindu background believers, tribal background believers, Buddhist background believer, and traditional background believers. But we focus mostly on the believers from Muslim backgrounds. We are trying our best to stand with the persecuted church, especially the weakest part of the body of Christ.
When we receive news that a believer has been persecuted or kidnapped, we try our best to contact and get more details regarding the incident and the victim’s family and then we pray and find out how we can help. We contact the person or family, comfort them, encourage them to depend on God. We try to extend our assistance with legal assistance, financial support or providing daily needs through our partners, according to the emergency and needs of the family.
We also organise different training programs. ‘Standing Strong Through the Storm’ is a persecution preparedness seminar where we help our believers to apply the biblical principles to persecution.
We help local believers with different livelihood trainings, so that they can also sustain themselves, because many people who come to Christ are living under the poverty level. When someone becomes a Christian, they immediately face persecution, they may lose their job, so we try to help them to find a job or set up a small business.
As I have mentioned, most of the believers who came from Muslim backgrounds are not educated, many of them are illiterate. So we have an adult literacy project. We have more than 200 centres all over Bangladesh and through them the believers have learned how to read the scripture and they can also calculate.
Those who came from Muslim backgrounds, especially the women, they are neglected in the community, so we have discipleship programs for women.
What difference does this work make to the lives of the believers?
Through the literacy program, many people who were illiterate can now read the scripture, they can share the stories from the scripture with their children, they can contribute to making decisions in the family, because now they can write and read. This is one area.
Another area is that, through the women’s discipleship program, now women are part of the church. They can help to build the church. Now, they have a voice in the church because they know the scripture, they know their work in Christ.
We have been conducting a seminar called Standing Strong Through the Storm. Before, the believers had misconceptions about persecution. Now they can forgive their persecutors. We get a lot of responses from the participants, saying, ‘Before we wanted to fight back against our persecutors. Now, we normally forgive them, because scripture tells us to forgive our prosecutors.’ There's a huge change in the community of the persecuted believers.
We always use the example of Jesus, how he forgave the persecutor. So now even children in school, they also forgive their friends, those who were discriminating against them – now they try to make friends with them.
In some areas, many believers faced problems drawing drinking water from the community wells. We started to work so that they can have drinking water. Now we got lots of stories from the beneficiaries, saying, ‘Though they stop us from drawing water from that well, now we're inviting them to get drinking water from our well.’
What is your hope for the future of the church in Bangladesh?
We want to see many people coming to Christ. The number of Christians will increase rapidly and some day the whole nation will become Christian. That’s my vision.
I want to see a strong local church, with no need to get help from outside of the country – they can sustain themselves through their livelihoods. They can sustain themselves physically and financially, but also spiritually. They can lead lives based on the scripture, and they can be a model in the community.
I want to see a strong church and strong believers so that they can face persecution. When persecution comes they can stand firm.
How would you like Christians around the world to pray for believers in Bangladesh?
We know that prayer is very important and very powerful because we can do nothing without the help of our Lord Jesus Christ and God our Father. We ask all the believers in the world to pray for these persecuted believers, especially believers from Muslim background.
Please pray as some of these believers (who were kidnapped) are still missing and so far, we don’t have any information or updates about them. Pray for God to help our people, our leaders, to find these (missing people). Pray so that we will have good news about these missing people.
Pray also for the community, it is such a small community, (living among) the big majority group in Bangladesh. Every day, in different homes, they are facing persecution, sufferings that come from the community, from the authorities, from their neighbours, from these extremist Islamic groups.
We really plead for your prayers for them so that they can stay strong in their faith in facing this type of persecution. (I believe) they are the instruments of God to be channels of blessings to many, so that the population of Bangladesh will come to know Christ and can receive Him as their Saviour and the Lord.
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