Two Bangladeshi pastors have been released on bail today after having been arrested and nearly mobbed by about 200 Muslims who gathered to attack a Christian meeting they were leading in northern Bangladesh.
Around noon on Nov 9, in a village in the northern district of Lalmonirhat, locals were outraged after they discovered the pastors were holding a meeting to educate Muslims about their Christian faith and to conduct a baptism.
Police intervened before the 200-strong mob could cause any harm and arrested the 45 people in attendance. Everyone was released by 10pm except for the two pastors.
Local imams filed charges against the two, accusing them of igniting the sentiments of Muslims and tempting them to convert.
The secular South Asian nation’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but Christians frequently experience discrimination and persecution fuelled by extremist groups demanding the establishment of Islamic law; 98% of Bangladeshis are Muslim.
The pastor’s names are being withheld for their security. Both were raised Muslim but have since converted to Christianity. One has been identified as a visiting minister and the other is known to lead a church of 30 people within the denomination of the Faith Bible Church of God. Both are married, and one has two young daughters.
“Most of the police and administration here [in Bangladesh] are Muslim,” said a Bangladeshi church leader who also asked to remain anonymous.
“Some are open, but many are not. This is a secular country, but in practice we don’t see that very much. Everyone has the right to preach and practice and choose their own religion. The police and administration know that, and yet this is going on,” he told World Watch Monitor.
The court denied the pastor’s lawyer’s initial request for bail, because local authorities were reportedly under pressure from Islamic leaders to keep the men in custody.
“The fundamentalists were very angry,” the church leader told World Watch Monitor. “So they thought if they grant bail, it will be a problem. ”
In a court hearing Nov 16, the pastor’s lawyer appealed the judge’s decision to not post bail. His request was granted on Nov 18. The men are now awaiting trial to face the charges filed by the imams.
Bangladesh has no anti-conversion bill so the church leader said he hopes the charges will be dropped quickly; “our lawyer said this case will not be difficult because of our constitutional rights.”
The church leader also confirmed that the attack did not take place at the property owned by the Faith Bible Church of God, and that the congregation and its pastor have never previously been targeted.
On November 2, a senior member of Bangladesh’s main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami was sentenced to death for war crimes committed in 1971. The death sentence of Mir Quasem Ali, 62, is the latest verdict in a series of cases against the group’s leaders accused of atrocities.
The verdicts have triggered protests in Bangladesh and a human rights observer in the region, who also asked to remain anonymous for security, told World Watch Monitor she believed the recent incident in Lalmonirhat was somewhat connected to the death sentencing of members of Jamaat-e-Islami. She said the mob attack may have been in reaction to the verdicts.
In February another church belonging to the same denomination in Lalmonirhat was seriously vandalised and damaged, according to online Bangladeshi news source The Daily Star.
Bangladesh ranks in at number 48 on Open Doors’ 2014 World Watch List. The annual list ranks the 50 most difficult countries for Christians to freely practise their faith. Open Doors is an international non-profit ministry which has supported persecuted Christians for 53 years.
According to the World Watch List, “Imams and local influential Muslims are in the frontline to persecute Christian believers, especially converts.”