October 2009

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Bangladesh: A Land of Contrasts

by Dr. Patricia Depew

Friendly, diligent and enterprising, Bangladeshis are noted for their sacrificial generosity. Bangladesh is, in many ways, a stunningly beautiful land. However, it is often described as a nation operating in a world of its own with a truncated infrastructure. It is a society deeply rooted in Islam. Bangladesh is almost as large as the American state of Iowa, but it has a population of about 158 million, with a median age of 23 years. On average there are 2,700 people per square mile! Ninety-eight percent of the people are ethnically Bengali. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world with approximately half of its inhabitants surviving on less than a dollar a day, Bangladeshis are striving hard to improve their lot, and slowly making headway.

Bangladesh contains a network of about 600 rivers that form the world’s mightiest delta, all of which wind their way into the Bay of Bengal. While these rivers often bring devastating floods, these same floods replenish the soil, making possible a rich harvest for farmers.

The country’s 85,650 villages are divided into six administrative divisions. The Dhaka division includes the capital city by the same name. On Bangladesh’s southeast is Chittagong, a beautiful land of low mountains comprising 10 percent of Bangladesh’s land. Rajshahi is famous for its silk industries, mango orchards and educational institutions. Barisal includes a major port city in the rice-producing center. Sylhet contains 150 tea gardens of which three are the largest in the world, both in area and production. The Khulna division includes rivers that provide a vital link to other parts of the country.

A Short History of an Ancient Land

The history of Bangladesh (land of Bengal) has been one of extremes; of turmoil and peace, prosperity and poverty. In the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. the Aryans came from central Asia and the Dravidians from western India. Then came the Guptas, Paals and Senas, who were Buddhists and Hindus. From the 13th century A.D., floods of Muslim invaders, including the Mughals, conquered Bengal. Starting in the 15th century, the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British traders exerted economic influence over the region. British political rule began in AD 1757.

After the end of the British rule in 1947, Viceroy Lord Mountbatten was assigned the task of restoring the Indian Subcontinent’s sovereignty. He worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi. Muslims were concerned that an independent India would be dominated by Hindus. In June of 1947, the United Kingdom declared it would grant full dominion status to two successor states: India and Pakistan. India would become the Hindu state and Pakistan, the Muslim state. The Muslim state would consist of two non-continuous areas: what is now Pakistan in the west, and further east, “East Pakistan” which is now Bangladesh. West Bengal remained in India, since most people there are Hindu. For months following the partition, a horrifying exodus took place as Hindus moved out of both wings of Pakistan and into India. Similarly, Muslims moved out of India and into the new Muslim state. With 17 million people involved, it became the largest refugee migration in history. There was wholesale carnage between the two hostile religious groups.

Besides sharing the Islamic faith, the people on the western and eastern part of the new Islamic state had little in common. They were separated by nearly 1,000 miles, spoke different languages, had different cultural histories. There were large economic disparities between East and West Pakistan. The latter fueled resentment among the citizens of East Pakistan that led to more bloodshed.

In 1971 Bengalis in East Pakistan fought a bitter civil war with West Pakistan. With help from India, the Bengalis defeated Pakistan, and Bangladesh became an independent Muslim country. Corruption, instability, assassinations and 18 coups have marred the years since then. A nine-year military dictatorship ended in 1991 with restoration of democracy and the election of a government led by a woman, Begum Khaleda Zia. The political turmoil that plagued the country appears to have ended with the June, 1996 elections. Former opposition leader Sheikh Hasina is now the Prime Minister. She must now rebuild a nation devastated partly by her own political boycott, and partly by the regular natural disasters that rack Bangladesh.

Ethnic Bangladesh

In addition to Bangladesh’s 98 percent majority Bengali people, there are 200,000 Urdu-speaking Bihari migrants, an estimated one million tribal people of the Chittagong Hills Tract (CHT), and smaller ethnic groups. These non-Bengalis have all experienced persecution from the Islamic Bengalis. The CHT tribals are made up of 13 groups, collectively known as the Jumma people, whose language roots are Tibeto-Burman. They have differences in their dialects, dress and customs. The most populous are the Chakmas, Marmas, Tipperas, and Mros. Their religious adherence is to Buddhism, Hinduism, animism, or Christianity. Through Saudi financial aid, the new Bangladesh military started as early as 1971 to pressure the Jummas to convert to Islam. The resulting abuses included rapes, torture, killings (13 massacres), land confiscation, forced refugee migration to India, destruction of religious temples, and interment in concentration camps. In 1997, the exhausted Jumma guerillas (PCJSS) gave up fighting and signed a peace accord with the government. The Jummas still continued to face persecution, and the perpetrators are seldom brought to justice. Only recently, Prime Minister Hasina approved the Indigenous Cultural Body Act of 2009, which should give these indigenous people the right to own and manage their cultural institutions, organizations and land.

About 83 percent of Bangladeshis are Muslims, 16 percent are Hindus and the remaining one percent includes Buddhists, Christians and animists.

Muslim militants are a small minority but they are relentless in pressuring the government to bring Bangladesh under Shari’ah (Islamic) Law. Foreign aid, particularly from the Middle East, causes the government to make concessions to Islamic extremists. This could drastically curtail the rights of non-Muslims.

Let’s Pray!
  • The spiritual problems for Bangladesh are many, but the greatest need is to take them to God in prayer. Currently, every Christian organization must register as a Non-Government Organization (NGO), and Bible printing and importation are restricted. Koranic terminology may not be used in the Bengali version of the Bible, and distribution must be strictly limited to the Christian community. Pray that God will make a way to overcome these restrictions so that spiritually needy Muslims will have access to His Word. As a rule, there are two types of churches in Bangladesh: the Underground Church consisting of Muslim background believers (MBBs), and the Visible Church, consisting almost entirely of converts from Hinduism. The teachings of Jesus (Isa) have attracted a significant number of Muslims to become His followers. Muslim-background believers accept Jesus as Savior and Lord, while retaining many cultural, social practices not forbidden in the Scriptures. Some of these MBBs worship God in Isa Mosques (Jesus Mosques) or in homes. This way, MBBs are not separated from their families and social environments. Pray that many of these MBBs will be able to influence others to follow Jesus without leaving their culture.
  • Pray that the Church in Bangladesh will lovingly and boldly reach out to the Muslim communities.
  • Ethnic groups in Bangladesh rarely mix socially, so the gospel isn’t moving from one ethnic group to another. Pray for believers in Bangladesh to reach out to other ethnic groups.
  • There is a great lack of pastors, Christian education and resources. Pray for these to become available through local resources.
  • Bangladesh frequently encounters hostile criticism over the use of child labor and exploitation of women for sex trafficking. Pray for these to be stopped.

 

From the Editor

by Keith Carey

We have prayed for Bangladesh before. With good reason, we will pray for this country again this month. Bengali is the seventh largest language group in the world, and the peoples who speak it are almost entirely either Muslim or Hindu. (Most of the Hindu Bengalis live in India, and the Muslims make up the bulk of Bangladesh). Even when they migrate to other parts of the world, very few Bengali speakers accept Christ. What will it take to get these 211 million people to consider the claims of our Lord?

Some would say that we are putting up unnecessary barriers to the gospel when we don’t allow Bengali believers to remain culturally Muslim. Our goal is to have people change their allegiance to Christ, As a general rule they should be able to keep their ways of dressing, their literary style, etc. It’s possible that missionaries have unwittingly introduced their own culture, making Christ appear foreign to these people who have had their own culture for about 2,600 years. The goal of mission is to take Christ to the nations, not foreign cultures or Christian institutions. Pray for efforts to take Christ to Bangladesh!