DHAKA – As the leader of the world’s Catholic faithful left Myanmar after his three-day visit, thousands of devotees eagerly awaited his arrival in neighboring Bangladesh on Thursday.
In this Muslim-majority country, aspirations of young Catholics each year draw many devotees to the priesthood, despite an increase in recent years in extremist attacks and killings of non-Muslims.
A total of 16 deacons will be ordained during Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Dhaka, which begins Thursday.
The high point of the pontiff’s trip is expected to come on Saturday, when he will hold a mass prayer ceremony with 80,000 Catholics at the Suhrawardy Udyan memorial site, where he will ordain the new priests.
“We are very happy to know that we are going to be ordained by Pope Francis (...) it’s going to be a historic moment for all of us,” 30-year-old Deacon Shaibal Francis Rozario told EFE.
Preparations for the grand prayer session were in full swing Thursday at the park site, as Shaibal and the other 15 deacons listened to the instructions of the Bangladesh police special forces, who are responsible for the protection of the top government leaders.
“I think it’s a call from God, that’s why I’m still here,” says Shaibal, who became more relaxed after the officers’ left.
Shaibal explained that his entire family supports his religious activities and added that it was his grandmother – “a very pious woman, who used to pray every day, especially the Rosary” – who inspired him most during his childhood.
According to the Episcopal conference, the Catholic Church in Bangladesh has eight dioceses, 35 religious congregations, a cardinal (appointed last year by Pope Francis), nine bishops and archbishops and 391 priests, 143 of whom are foreigners.
Those priests, although they refrain from preaching openly to avoid offending the sentiments of the Islamic majority – who form 88 percent of Bangladesh’s population – are protected by the country’s Constitution, which recognizes total freedom of religion.
Despite that, Christians have been targeted since 2013 in a wave of extremist attacks against intellectuals, bloggers, homosexuals and members of other religious minorities.
In 2015, an Italian missionary was attacked and wounded by radicals in northern Bangladesh and in June last year, a Christian trader was hacked to death in a similar incident.
But not only have those tragedies not deterred priests from seeking ordination, the 16 due to be ordained during the Pope’s visit marks a slightly higher number than the yearly average of 10-15 deacons who enter the priesthood, the rector of Emmanuel K. Rozario, the Holy Spirit of Dhaka said.
Rozario added that this would be the second time several priests would receive the papal blessing after Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1986.
The Catholic community in the South Asian country has about 450,000 members, and makes up less than one percent of the total population of 162 million people.
A relatively low birth rate among Bangladeshi Christians means that conversions to the faith are the only viable way the community can expect to grow.