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U.S. Department of State
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
November 17, 2010
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion. It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions, subject to law, public order, and morality. It also states that every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain, and manage its religious institutions. Although the government publicly supported freedom of religion, attacks on religious and ethnic minorities continued to be a problem during the reporting period since religious minorities are often at the bottom of the social hierarchy and, therefore, have the least political recourse. There were reported attacks on institutions of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and there were isolated instances of harassment. Demands that Ahmadis be declared non-Muslims continued sporadically. Religion exerted a significant influence on politics and the government was sensitive to the religious sentiments of most citizens.
There was no change in the status of the government’s respect for religious freedom during the reporting period, but several High Court rulings bolstered the country’s status as a secular state. Members of minority communities serve in several senior leadership positions in the government. The government initiated efforts to reform the curriculum of Islamic religious schools, known as madrassahs, to standardize education. However, there were two types of madrassahs in the country, Quami and Alia, and Quami madrassahs operated outside of the government’s purview. Therefore, Alia madrassahs received support and curriculum oversight from the government, and Quami madrassahs did not. Citizens generally were free to practice the religion of their choice. Government officials, including police, nonetheless often were ineffective in upholding law and order, and sometimes they were slow to assist religious minority victims of harassment and violence. The government and many civil society leaders stated that violence against religious minorities normally had political or economic dimensions and could not be attributed solely to religious belief or affiliation.
There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice during the reporting period, although figures suggested such incidents declined significantly in comparison to the previous reporting period. Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist minorities experienced discrimination and sometimes violence from the Muslim majority. Harassment of Ahmadis continued.
The U.S. government discusses religious freedom with the government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. In meetings with officials and in public statements, U.S. embassy officers encouraged the government to protect the rights of minorities. Publicly and privately the embassy denounced acts of religious intolerance and called on the government to ensure due process for all citizens.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of 55,126 square miles and a population of 154 million. According to the 2001 census Sunni Muslims constitute 90 percent of the population and Hindus 9 percent. The rest of the population is mainly Christian (mostly Roman Catholic), and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. Ethnic and religious minority communities often overlap and are concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and northern regions. Buddhists are predominantly found among the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, including Barisal City, Gournadi in Barisal District, Baniarchar in Gopalganj, Monipuripara in Dhaka, Christianpara in Mohakhal, Nagori in Gazipur, and Khulna City. There also are small populations of Shi’a Muslims, Sikhs, Baha’is, animists, and Ahmadis. Estimates of their numbers varied from a few thousand to 100,000 adherents per group. There is no indigenous Jewish community and no significant immigrant Jewish population. Religion is an important part of community and cultural identity for citizens, including those who did not participate actively in prayers or services.
Most foreign residents are of Bangladeshi origin and practice Islam. Separately, there are approximately 30,000 registered Rohingya refugees and 200,000 to 500,000 unregistered Rohingyas practicing Islam in the southeast around Cox’s Bazar.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion. It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions, subject to law, public order, and morality. In February 2010 the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court ruled that the elements of the fifth amendment to the constitution were unconstitutional. The ruling returned avowed secularism to the constitution and nominally banned Islamic political parties; however, officials have stated that the ban would not be strictly enforced.
Under the penal code, any person who has a “deliberate” or “malicious” intention of hurting religious sentiments is liable to face imprisonment. In addition the Code of Criminal Procedure states, “the government may confiscate all copies of a newspaper if it publishes anything that creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” While there are no laws specifically against blasphemy, religious political parties have pledged to enact such laws should they gain power. The government has not publicly commented on enacting blasphemy laws, but it briefly blocked access to the popular social networking site, Facebook, due in part to a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Access was restored within one week, but the government continued to block the pages it deemed to be offensive.
The government publicly supported freedom of religion; however, attacks and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities continued during the reporting period. In general, government institutions and the courts protected religious freedom.
In 2001 the High Court ruled all legal rulings based on Shari’a, known as fatwas, to be illegal. After a lengthy judicial review, the Appellate Division of the High Court upheld the ban as part of a broader ruling against all forms of extrajudicial punishment.
Although Islamic tradition dictates that only muftis (religious scholars) who have expertise in Islamic law are authorized to declare a fatwa, village religious leaders at times made declarations in individual cases. Sometimes this resulted in extrajudicial punishments, often against women, for perceived moral transgressions.
Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination
There were approximately 100,000 Ahmadis concentrated in Dhaka and several other locales. A series of attacks between June 17 and August 8, 2010, left 20 members of the Ahmadi community in the Ghatail upazila injured and severely damaged their homes and religious institutions. The attacks targeted male members of the community. Ahmadi community leaders reported the attacks to the police, but there have been no arrests. Although mainstream Muslims rejected some Ahmadiyya teachings, most of them supported the Ahmadis’ right to practice without fear of persecution.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. government discusses religious freedom with officials at all levels of the government, as well as with political party leaders and representatives of religious and minority communities. The embassy continued to express concern about human rights, including the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. Embassy staff traveled to various regions investigating human rights cases, including some involving religious minorities, and met with civil society members, NGOs, local religious leaders, and other citizens to discuss these cases. They also encouraged law enforcement to take proactive measures to protect the rights of religious minorities.
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government officials regularly visited members of minority communities to hear their concerns and demonstrate support. During the Chittagong City Corporation elections, observation teams focused on minority communities in the city, but observed no violence.
The embassy assisted U.S. faith-based relief organizations in filing documents for approval of schools and other projects. The government has been willing to discuss such subjects and has been helpful in resolving problems. The embassy also has acted as an advocate in the Home Ministry for these organizations in resolving problems with visas.
The embassy encouraged the government, through the Ministry for Religious Affairs, to develop and expand its training program for Islamic religious leaders. After a pilot program, the U.S. government provided orientation sessions for religious leaders on human rights and gender equality, among other topics. USAID reached out to leaders of influence nationwide, including religious leaders, to introduce the concepts and practices of modern development and democracy through trainings. In working with these leaders, USAID promoted the values of diversity and tolerance across communities in the country. Twenty thousand community leaders participating in this program benefited from support to inspire, mentor, and collaborate with other agents of change in their communities.
During the reporting period, the U.S. government continued to make religious freedom, especially the problems facing the population in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a topic of discussion in meetings with government officials. Embassy officers met with representatives from organizations from the Hill Tracts and met with senior government officials to relay concerns about the treatment of minorities.
Democracy and governance projects supported by the U.S. government included tolerance and minority rights components.