Special Rapporteur urges Bangladesh to tackle intolerance

In an interview with ucanews.com on 9 September, following a 10-day visit to the country, Heiner Bielefeldt, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said religious extremism is instilling a climate of fear among Bangladesh’s ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians. The politicisation of religion and a rise in intolerance threaten Bangladesh’s long tradition of pluralism and interreligious harmony.

Bielefeldt said authorities are not doing enough to find justice for victims of violence targeting ethnic and religious minorities.

“There are allegations of attack, murder and rape of indigenous people, but they are not often efficiently investigated,” Bielefeldt said. “So religious and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh live in a climate of physical and legal insecurity.”

He cited an example of the 2012 attacks on Buddhist temples in Ramu, in Cox’s Bazar in the country’s southeast. Authorities helped repair places of worship after the violence, Bielefeldt said, yet perpetrators have not been punished.

As part of his visit, Bielefeldt met with government officials, parliamentarians, human rights activists, civil society organizations, indigenous leaders and religious organizations, including members of the Christian community.

Bielefeldt said Christian leaders he met with told him of their fears of a rise in Islamic extremism.

“There are incidents of looting of churches and violence against Christian men and women. Other people might see these just as sporadic incidents, but from minorities’ perspectives, it is seen in a broader context,” Bielefeldt said. “Often, these are not taken seriously. So, the fear is there.”

He also praised Christians for initiating interreligious dialogue programs that seek to bring together representatives from majority and minority religious groups.

Islam dominates in Bangladesh, with Muslims comprising about 90 percent of the country’s 160 million people. Hindus represent about 8 percent, while Christians and Buddhists represent only a small percentage of the population.

“Religious extremism is a global phenomenon,” he said. “It is not only happening in the name of Islam, but also in the name of Buddhism in Myanmar, in the name of Hinduism in India, and also in the name of Christianity in Russia.”

Bielefeldt’s visit to Bangladesh comes amid worrying trends for religious minorities in Bangladesh.

The issue of secularism has recently been in the public spotlight, after the country’s Supreme Court rejected a petition challenging the legality of a constitutional provision recognizing Islam as Bangladesh’s state religion.

Speaking with reporters Bielefeldt said the government has publicly committed to defending the constitutional principle of secularism. But in practice, there are “inconsistencies” in how this is implemented.

He said the influence of extremists has triggered “the politicisation of religion” and contributed to a shrinking space in the country for religious minorities and secularism.

He cited the high-profile murders of several secular bloggers this year.

“The government condemned the recent murders of online activists but did little to protect them,” Bielefeldt said. “Some officials publicly admonished them for expressing critical views on religion, particularly Islam … thereby, sending ambiguous messages to society.”

He also cited a controversial law that calls for punishments for people judged to have published material to deliberately hurt people’s religious feelings.

“This law undoubtedly has a chilling effect on civil society organizations, human rights activists and members of religious minority communities,” he said, adding that the law “contributes to the perception of a shrinking space for frank public discourse”.

While there may be troubling signs for religious freedoms in Bangladesh, Bielefeldt said there are also solutions.

“Extremism rises when there is endemic poverty, unemployment and corruption prevail, and people lose their trust in public institutions,” Bielefeldt told ucanews.com. “If Bangladesh wants to check extremism, it must tackle all these contributing factors.”

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Read the Special Rapporteur’s Press Statement in full