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Home U.S. Department of State Annual Report (IRF) 2005: Bangladesh
Int’l Religious Freedom Report - 2005: Bangladesh

Excerpts from
U.S. Department of State
International Religious Freedom Report 2005 : Bangladesh
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
November 8, 2005
Bangladesh

The Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but provides for the right to practice–subject to law, public order, and morality—the religion of one’s choice. The Government’s respect for religious freedom was inconsistent, and due to the action of extremists, the year was marked with harassment and violent attacks against the Ahmadiyya community. Religion exerts a powerful influence on politics, and the Government is sensitive to the Muslim consciousness of its political allies and the majority of its citizens.[Para #1]

Citizens generally are free to practice the religion of their choice; however, police are normally ineffective in upholding law and order and are often slow to assist members of religious minorities who have been victims of crimes. Although the Government states that acts of violence against members of religious minority groups are politically or economically motivated and cannot be solely attributed to religion, religiously motivated violence was a continuing problem. [Para # 2]

The generally amicable relationships among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist minorities experienced discrimination by the Muslim majority, and the year was marked with harassment of Ahmadis. During the period covered by this report, the Government was led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which heads a four-party coalition that includes two Islamic parties, Jamaat Islami and the Islami Okiyya Jote. A large majority of Hindus traditionally votes for the opposition Awami League (AL). In the 300-seat Parliament, religious minorities hold 7 seats—4 for the AL and 3 for BNP. Three non-Muslims hold deputy or state minister or equivalent positions in the Government. … [Para # 3]

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. After the April attacks on Ahmadis, the Ambassador visited the Ahmadiyya headquarters in Dhaka to show support for their security and religious freedom. Assistant Secretary for South Asia and Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia also visited the Ahmadiyya headquarters during their trips to the region in 2005 to emphasize the importance the United States places on religious freedom. Undersecretary for Political Affairs also stressed the protection of Ahmadis during official meetings [Para # 4]

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 55,126 square miles, and its population is 141 million. Sunni Muslims constitute 88 percent of the population. Approximately 10 percent of the population is Hindu. The remainder is mainly Christian (mostly Catholic) and Buddhist. Ethnic and religious minority communities often overlap and are concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and northern regions. Buddhists are found predominantly among the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Bengali Christians can be found in many communities across the country and some indigenous groups in various areas are also Christian. There also are small populations of Shi’a Muslims, Sikhs, Baha’is, animists, and Ahmadis. Estimates of their numbers vary from a few thousand to 100,000 adherents for each faith. There is no known indigenous Jewish community. Anti-Semitic attitudes are widespread and are sometimes evident in commentaries, particularly on the Middle East, in mainstream newspapers. Religion is an important part of community identity for citizens, including those who do not participate actively in prayers or services. [Para # 5]

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but provides for the right to practice—subject to law, public order, and morality—the religion of one’s choice. [Para # 8]

Religion exerts a powerful influence on politics, and the Government is sensitive to the Muslim consciousness of its political allies, Jamaat Islami and the Islami Okiyya Jote, as well as the majority of its citizens. [Para # 13]

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In December 2003, anti-Ahmadi activists killed a prominent Ahmadi leader in Jessore and announced a January 23, 2004, deadline for the Government to declare Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. On January 8, 2004, the Government announced a ban on all Ahmadi publications. The ban has not been formalized, but police detained a boy for 3 days for possession of Ahmadi books, and during demonstrations in April and May 2004, police entered and from two Ahmadi mosques and seized documents. On December 21, 2004, the Government printed a Gazette banning Ahmadi publications but did not release it. After local human rights activists and Ahmadi leaders filed a writ petition challenging the Gazette, the High Court stayed the ban. The Government has opposed court challenges to the ban on the grounds the ban has not been promulgated officially and is, therefore, beyond judicial scrutiny. With a few exceptions, police are not enforcing the ban. [Para # 24]

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Since the 2001 elections, religious minorities reportedly have continued to be targeted for attacks, which has led to the requirement for guards to be present at church and temple ceremonies. Reportedly, incidents include killings, rape, torture, attacks on places of worship, destruction of homes, forced evictions, and desecration of items of worship. These claims continued during the period covered by this report. However, many such reports have not been verified independently, and there also has been violence during important Muslim holidays. The Government sometimes has failed to investigate the crimes and prosecute the perpetrators, who are often local gang leaders. [Para # 26]

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report. On February 15 and 16, firebomb attacks on two social development NGOs, which extremists viewed as “un-Islamic,” left at least eight workers injured. On February 23, the Government banned two Islamic extremist groups, Jammat ul Mujaheedin (JM) and the Jagrato Muslim Janata Bangaldesh (JMJB), for their alleged complicity. There were no reports that either group targeted non-Muslims or Ahmadis. [Para # 36]

Improvement and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

Following demands by the Islami Okiyya Jote, an Islamist coalition partner of the ruling BNP, that Ahmadi publications be banned and that Ahmadis be declared non-Muslims, the Government announced such a ban on January 8, 2004. However, several days later, the Prime Minister announced the Government would not declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. [Para # 37]

In the fourth quarter of 2004, the Government took a more active stance against the International Khatme Nabuwat Movement Bangladesh (IKNMB), which spearheads anti-Ahmadi agitation, stopping two planned marches on the Ahmadiyya headquarters in Dhaka by an effective combination of political pressure and police deployments. At government direction, police in Ahmadiyya communities also became more active in protecting Ahmadis. However, in other cases, police did not stop extremist demonstrators from placing provocative signboards at Ahmadi mosques. [Para # 38]

Section III. Societal Attitudes

…… Religious minorities are vulnerable due to their relatively limited influence with political elites. Like many citizens, they are often reluctant to seek recourse from a corrupt and ineffective criminal justice system. Police are often ineffective in upholding law and order and are sometimes slow to assist religious minorities. This promotes an atmosphere of impunity for acts of violence against them. [Para # 39]

There are approximately 100,000 Ahmadis concentrated in Dhaka and several other locales. In the latter part of 2003, they were the targets of attacks and harassment prompted by clerics and leaders of the Islami Okiyya Jote. Many mainstream Muslims view Ahmadis as heretics. In October 2003, 17 Ahmadi families in Kushtia were barricaded in their homes for several days. In November 2003, police stopped a mob of about 5,000 attempting to destroy an Ahmadi mosque in Tejgaon, Dhaka. In December 2003, anti-Ahmadi activists killed a prominent Ahmadi leader in Jessore; however, there were no results from the subsequent police investigations in any of these cases. On January 8, 2004, the Government announced a ban on all Ahmadi publications; the ban has not been promulgated officially, but in April and May 2004, police entered and seized documents from Ahmadi mosques. [Para # 42]

Throughout the first three quarters of 2004, the police provided minimal protection to Ahmadiyya communities facing harassment. [Para # 43]

In April 2004, allegedly 12 Ahmadi houses were destroyed; 15 Ahmadi men and women in Rangpur reportedly were held against their will and pressed to renounce their faith. They were released after hours of verbal harassment; no legal action was taken against their assailants. [Para # 44]

At the end of May 2004, the Khatme Nabuwat Andolan, a group of anti-Ahmadi Islamic clerics, reportedly threatened to evict thousands of Ahmadis from their homes in Patuakhali, Rangpur, and Chittagong. The same group also threatened to attack Ahmadi mosques in those districts. Many Ahmadis appealed to the administration for protection and security. [Para # 45]

In October 2004, police and paramilitary troops prevented supporters of two anti-Ahmadi groups from attacking the Ahmadi mosque in a town 10 miles southeast of Dhaka. On October 29, 2004, an anti-Ahmadi mob injured 11 Ahmadis in an attempt to seize a mosque 100 miles east of Dhaka. [Para # 46]

On December 21, 2004, the Government printed a Gazette banning Ahmadi publications but did not release it. After local human rights activists and Ahmadi leaders filed a writ petition challenging the Gazette, the High Court stayed the ban. [Para # 47]

On March 11, 2005, following a week of processions throughout Bangladesh demanding that the Government declare Ahmadis non-Muslims, a mob attempted to lay siege to a mosque in the town of Bogra, hoping to remove the “Ahmadi Mosque” sign. Police controlled the mob but removed the sign. After a few hours, police put the sign back up. [Para # 48]

On April 18, 2005, members of the International Khatme Nabuwat Movement Bangladesh (IKNMB), an anti-Ahmadi movement which has been lobbying the government to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims, attacked an Ahmadi community in the Shatkira district ransacking some homes and injuring over 50 persons after hanging a new sign on an Ahmadi mosque. [Para # 49]

In April 2005, there was a spate of attacks on Ahmadis – none fatal – that indicated inadequate police protection. A pattern has developed where mobs approach an Ahmadi mosque with a sign declaring the place “a house of worship not a mosque” with the intention of replacing the current sign. Twice, the police aided the crowd by putting up the sign in what they claim is a preventive measure for controlling the mobs. [Para # 50]

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government routinely discusses religious freedom issues with officials at all levels of the Government as well as with political party leaders and representatives of religious and minority communities. During the previous reporting period, the U.S. Embassy encouraged Jamaat Islami to reiterate publicly its position that it supports tolerance and minority rights in the context of an attack on a religious minority member. Jammat Islami demurred until April 2005, when Jamaat Islami released a public statement condemning attacks on religious minorities and the use of violence. During the previous reporting period, the Embassy also successfully encouraged the leader of a major political party to condemn attacks on Ahmadis. An article that the Ambassador wrote for local newspapers on Human Rights Day on December 10, 2003, stressed the importance of religious tolerance and other basic rights. Democracy and governance projects supported by the U.S. include tolerance and minority rights components. [Para # 52]

Due to the increased attacks on Ahmadis, the U.S. Government made religious freedom a central point of discussion in meetings with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Law Minister, the Home Minister, and several other ministers beginning in December 2003 and continuing throughout this reporting period. The Embassy expressed its views on religious freedom to the media and public forums related to democracy and governance. [Para # 53]

After the new attacks on Ahmadis in April 2005, the Ambassador visited the Ahmadiyya headquarters in Dhaka to show support for their security and religious freedom; Deputy Assistant Secretary did likewise in June. Assistant Secretary Rocca also visited Ahmadiyya headquarters in May 2004 to emphasize the importance the U.S. Government places on religious freedom. [Para # 54]

Following demands for the ban of Ahmadi publications and that Ahmadis be declared non-Muslims, the Government announced such a ban on January 8, 2004. However, several days later, after senior-level representations by the Embassy and a visiting Congressional delegation, the Prime Minister announced that the Government would not declare Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. In addition, after the Embassy and several human rights organizations expressed concerns, the Government in March deferred action on legislation proposed by a BNP parliamentarian that would have created a blasphemy law based on the Pakistani model. [Para # 55]

Embassy and visiting U.S. Government officials regularly visited members of minority communities to hear their concerns and demonstrate support. [Para # 56]

Related : See Bangladesh Section.
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