Pope Francis with Bangladesh’s President, Abdul Hamid, at the Presidential palace in Dhaka today.

Pope Francis has arrived in Bangladesh, where a Catholic priest disappeared three days ago, highlighting the pressure Christians and other minority groups are under in the mainly Muslim country.

Father Walter William Rozario, who is also the headmaster of a high school, went missing in northern Natore district on 27 November, on his way home from Bonpara, the village where a Catholic shopkeeper was hacked to death in June. Bonpara is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the country.

Earlier this month, the police charged 12 militants with the shopkeeper’s murder. The Islamic State group had claimed responsibility for the murder, saying it was “part of its operations” in Bangladesh, though the government has repeatedly insisted IS has no presence there.

Police say they are investigating whether Fr. Rozario, who lives in Borni, 300km east of Bonpara, was abducted by Islamists. The lead priest at Fr. Rosario’s church, Father Subroto Purification, told AsiaNews he had received a phone call with a ransom request of 300,000 Taka  (more than US$ 3,500). A report from The Hindu said a call had been made to the family from the priest’s phone, but that the police believed it was a hoax.

Fr. Rosario, 41, had been in Bonpara to help prepare for the ordination of two local deacons by Pope Francis in Dhaka on Friday (1 December), UCA News reported.

The priest’s disappearance has instilled fear in the parishioners, who say they no longer feel safe to attend events connected to the Pope’s visit.

Pope ‘talking to Bangladesh’s soul’

Christians and Hindus account for less than 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population of 160 million. Of the total population, Catholics comprise just 0.2 per cent, approximately 250,000 people – an even smaller number than in Myanmar, where there are around 600,000, according to the BBC.

The pontiff’s message, however, will be for the whole nation, Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka told journalists earlier.

“[He] is coming to talk to the soul of Bangladesh … prioritising reconciliation, forgiveness and peace,” the Cardinal said.

In his speech today (30 November) Pope Francis said: “The most holy name of God can never be invoked to justify hatred and violence against our fellow human beings.”

The Pope will also meet with 500 Islamic leaders tomorrow (1 December), who will deliver a letter to him containing a “fatwa against extremism signed by 100,000 imams”, senior Muslim cleric Allamma Majharul Islam told AsiaNews.

The cleric, who is also a consultant to the Minister of the Interior and responsible for curbing the use of hate speech by imams, said fundamentalism in Bangladesh was “rooted in an incorrect education”. He emphasised that there was a need to teach students the “true teachings of Islam”, to “tell them there is no place for weapons or attacks on other believers”.

Image threatened

Bangladesh has long been known as a moderate Muslim nation, but that image has been threatened in recent years with the rise of attacks against religious and ethnic minorities.

The six months between November 2015 and May 2016 was a particularly gruesome period.

First, an Italian priest was shot dead in the north – an attack later claimed by IS. Two months later, in January 2016, a 75-year-old pastor, Khaza Somiruddin, was murdered. Then in March, a 65-year-old Muslim convert to Christianity, Hossain Ali, was hacked to death. In April a Hindu tailor suffered the same fate for allegedly blaspheming against the prophet Muhammad. Then in May two people were injured after bomb attacks on a Christian home.

A report published in November last year said the government had “singularly failed” to protect Christians and other minorities from increasingly frequent violent attacks by Islamic extremists linked to Al-Qaeda.

However, in a move to curb the growth of Islamic extremism in Bangladesh, the government in October ordered chapters on jihad to be removed from next year’s textbooks for madrasas (Islamic schools).