Christian leaders in Bangladesh have condemned the demolition of a partly built Protestant church by the Forest Department in a remote hilly area of the country.
Adhirang Tripura, a member of the largely Christian indigenous Tripura community, said Christians are angry and demanding compensation after Forest Department officials destroyed their new church in Sathiram Tripura village after accusing them of illegally occupying a forest reserve.
Forest officials along with 8-10 Muslim civilians tore down the Seventh-day Adventist Church building at Kurukpata Union in the Alikadam area of Bandarban district, one of three hilly, forested districts collectively called the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), on Feb. 25, according to Adhirang, a Baptist Christian and member of the local union council.
“Officials said they demolished the church building because it was being constructed in a forest reserve. But my question is, then why are illegal activities like cutting down trees and lifting stones from rivers not stopped? Can’t we, as a minority, practice our religion properly?” Adhirang told UCA News.
“The destroyed building was not a new church, but an old structure made of bamboo and straw was being replaced with a concrete building with funding from church members.”
If the structure was illegal, it should not have existed for years, he added.
Some 160 Tripura Christians belonging to the Baptist Church or Seventh-day Adventist Church have been living in Bidhymoni Tripura village and Sathiram Tripura village for generations, he explained.
An official from Chittagong Catholic Archdiocese that covers the area also expressed dismay over the church demolition.
“We are worried and terrified over the incident. We also have our churches here and the incident is a bad example. We want justice for this incident and hope the government will compensate the Seventh-day Adventists for it,” the priest told UCA News on condition of anonymity.
Catholic priests working in the CHT are often harassed and questioned by law enforcement agencies when they visit villages to offer pastoral care to the faithful.
“This is unacceptable. All must be free to practice their faith freely,” the priest added.
S.M. Kaiser, a forest official in Bandarban, denied allegations of any wrongdoing.
“We evicted a building in the reserve area. The law requires that permission from the Forest Department is mandatory if anyone wants to build any structure in a forest area. In this case no permission was given,” he told UCA News.
Philip Tripura, general secretary of the Alikadam Tripura Welfare Association, said the incident is of grave concern to the local Christian community.
“The Forest Department has hurt the religious sentiments of Christians by demolishing the church. We demand a fair investigation and justice for this heinous act. If not, it will be difficult for Christians in the region to practice their religion in the coming days,” Philip told UCA News.
According to its website, the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Bangladesh has been active in the country since 1906. It operates schools, colleges and orphanages across Bangladesh. It has 33,681 members in 127 churches in the country. Christians, mostly Catholics, account for less than half of one percent of the 160 million people in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
The CHT is Bangladesh’s only mountainous region — bordered by India and Myanmar to the southeast — and famous for its natural beauty including lush green forests, hills, rivers, springs and lakes. For years, the area has been home to more than 25 indigenous groups, mostly Buddhists and some Christians.
Since the 1980s, the region has received a massive influx of Bengali Muslim settlers under state-sponsored migration schemes that triggered tensions and violent disputes over land, livelihoods and forestry.
Indigenous groups formed a militia group that started attacking Muslim settlers accused of land grabbing and abusing their people. In response, the government deployed the military and a bloody bush war raged for more than two decades until the signing of the CHT Peace Accord in 1997.
Despite the peace treaty, the CHT remains a heavily militarized zone and a volatile region where deadly sectarian conflicts and violence between armed political parties are common.