The government of Bangladesh has “singularly failed” to protect its Christian and other minority populations, a report has claimed.

The report, Under threat: the challenges facing religious minorities in Bangladesh, by Minority Rights Group International, said Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, gay activists and other minorities had suffered increasingly frequent violent attacks by Islamic extremists linked to Al-Qaeda. Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for many attacks carried out in Bangladesh, but the country’s government denies the group has a presence there.

The 25-page report, published on 17 November, found that IS-linked militants had murdered two people who had converted from Islam to Christianity, and two other Christians, in the first half of this year. IS said the second convert, knifed to death in March, was killed as “a lesson to others”.

“The authorities have not only shown a consistent failure to protect minorities but also to bring many of the perpetrators to justice,” the report said. It found widespread social prejudice and religious intolerance towards non-Muslim minorities, and “clear signs of wider support among some Bangladeshis” for extremist movements. 

Christians have long been subjected to discrimination and harassment, and the report described violence against minorities, such as sexual harassment, abduction and forced marriage, as “everyday” occurrences. Christian women, along with Buddhist and Hindu women, were often specifically targeted with sexual violence “to intimidate and displace communities from their land”, it said.

The authorities have not only shown a consistent failure to protect minorities but also to bring many of the perpetrators to justice.

–Minority Rights Group International

Bangladesh has just one Christian MP, Jewel Areng, and the under-representation of non-Muslims in politics ensures that “religious minorities remain marginalised within Bangladesh’s mainstream politics”, the report said. However, last month a Catholic, Albert Costa, was elected to fill one of the highest offices of the country’s largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Mr. Costa will take over the presidency of the party’s youth wing.

Thomas Muller, an analyst at the World Watch Research Unit of Open Doors International, said: “Christians and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh are second-class citizens and lack any real lobby support. It is therefore all the more encouraging to see that a Christian was chosen to join the BNP leadership.”

However, on the same day the report was issued, a British newspaper quoted a senior Bangladeshi government official who argued that Islam should no longer be named as the country’s state religion.

Dr. Abdur Razzak of the ruling Awami League party said he believed Islam had been maintained as the state religion in the Bangladeshi constitution for “strategic reasons”. He declined to elaborate during a discussion at the National Press Club in the capital, Dhaka, The Independent reported.

“I have said it abroad and now I am saying it again that Islam will be dropped from Bangladesh’s constitution when the time comes,” he said.

“The force of secularism is within the people of Bangladesh. There is no such thing as a ‘minority’ in our country.”

Some commentators believe the Awami League, which counts secularism as one of its guiding principles, kept Islam as the state religion because it feared losing votes.