DHAKA – On the eve of Pope Francis’ visit, the tiny Catholic community in Bangladesh hopes that the pontiff’s trip will help strengthen the faith of its approximately 450,000 members, who avoid practicing overt evangelism for fears of a backlash from other communities in the majority Muslim nation.
Making up less than one percent of the total population, Catholics in Bangladesh have learned to prioritize national and social harmony over spreading the gospel.
“This is a Muslim country in which we all live together in harmony, so we do not want to cause any kind of problem,” the main spokesperson for the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Bangladesh, Kamal Corraya, told EFE.
Faced with these obstacles, Corraya hopes that the arrival of Pope Francis to Dhaka on Thursday will help strengthen the faith of Bangladeshi Catholics, raise awareness of their tiny community, and perhaps help attract new converts.
Corraya said that, although Catholics do not evangelize openly, they are protected by the Constitution, which was created following Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, and protects religious freedoms, specifying that every citizen has the right to practice or propagate any religion.
“We liberated ourselves from Pakistan under the perspective that everyone would have the same rights,” Corraya said, adding that in 1971, during the war of independence, he remembered how Christians sheltered and fed those who fought, regardless of their faith.
Today, humanitarian assistance provided by the Bangladeshi Catholic community has become more institutionalized, specifically in the form of 700 primary and secondary schools, a university and 75 hospitals and clinics, according to data provided by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Bangladesh.
These services are often the only ones available, particularly in the more remote parts of the country, where the support is most needed.
It is in these tribal, remote areas where “evangelization works, not in the cities,” a member of the Bangladeshi church, who did not want to be named, told EFE.
“There are restrictions in our country to convert, so we have to do it in secret, that is the technique,” he explained.
Low birth rates among Bangladeshi Christians mean that conversions are the only realistic way the community can expect to grow.
“Christian couples have between one and two children, and Muslims have four or five,” Corraya said.
Pope Francis, who will arrive in Dhaka on Thursday on an official three-day visit, is expected to ordain 16 other priests during a mass that will be held on Friday at one of the main parks in the city.
According to the Conference, the church has eight dioceses, 100 parishes, 35 religious congregations, a cardinal (named last year by Pope Francis), nine bishops and archbishops and 391 priests, 143 of whom are foreigners.
The Pope’s visit to Dhaka will be the second to Bangladesh by the Supreme Pontiff since independence in 1971, after John Paul II’s 1986 visit.