Pope Francis is currently on a 2-nation pastoral visit to Asia. After visiting Myanmar, Nov. 27-30, he is now in Bangladesh from where he will fly back to Rome on Saturday, December 2.
Both Myanmar and Bangladesh have a tiny Catholic community. While Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, Bangladesh is mostly Muslim.
With nearly 90 percent of its estimated 156 million population (2016) adhering to Islam, Bangladesh is home to the world’s 4th largest Muslim population after Indonesia, Pakistan and India. Around 10% of the people are Hindus, and Christians and Buddhists make up less than 1 percent each of the population. As of 2016, there are some 350,000 Catholics, or approximately 0.2 percent of the population.
Stretching from the shore of the Bay of Bengal up to the hills of the north-east and south-east, and the highlands of the north and northwest, the lush green largely low-lying delta is rendered fertile by the massive Padma (Ganges), Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, where travelling by boat is common. Besides, the country has a rich variety of people, with 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the government.
Popes in Bangladesh
When Pope Francis stepped on to the soil of Bangladesh Thursday afternoon, he became the third Pontiff to visit the region. Blessed Paul VI was the first Pope to have stopped briefly at Dacca (today Dhaka) airport on Nov. 27, 1970, when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. It became independent in 1971. St. Pope John Paul II visited the nation 31 years ago in November, 1986, as part of a 6-nation apostolic trip.
Ahead of his Myanmar-Bangladesh visit, Pope Francis, in his prayer intention for November, had invited the worldwide Catholic Church to pray for Christians in Asia, that bearing witness to the Gospel in word and deed, they may promote dialogue, peace, and mutual understanding, especially with those of other religions. The theme chosen by the Bangladesh Church for this papal visit - “Harmony and Peace” – speaks much about this.
The majority Sunni-Muslim nation has seen growing islamist radicalism with a series of deadly attacks on secular writers, minorities and foreigners in recent years. The nation was rocked by a terror attack on an upscale café in Dhaka in July 2016 with attackers claiming allegiance to the Islamic State.
In this context, we contacted Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, Archbishop of Dhaka on the phone to know how dialogue and witness by Christians work out at the grassroots levels.
Cardinal D’Rozario, who is the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB), noted that even though Christians are a minority, they are powerful in “witnessing to the Gospel,” like the “salt of the earth” and “little lamps lit for others”.
The Asian Church has the “power of the Gospel” that can be “translated in dialogue, into inter-religious harmony or understanding,” that Pope Francis speaks about. They have the dialogue of life, dialogue of action and dialogue of feasts and festivals, which he said particularly unites all.
There is also the dialogue of reflection whereby they try to understand each other from their faith perspectives. Card. D’Rozario said they can also have spiritual dialogue, praying together imploring for peace and understanding and in times of calamities.
According to the 74-year old cardinal, “dialogue is a means of evangelization.” “Evangelization,” he pointed out, “does not mean conversion.” It means realizing the “Gospel values in the context where we live,” he said.