‘Rise in hate speech, mob violence over past year has created precarious situation for minorities’
US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain travelled to Bangladesh on April 17-20. He visited the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar, met government officials, civil society and youth groups in Dhaka. In a written email interview on May 5, he shared with The Daily Star the purpose of his visit and the message he left here or will communicate to Washington.
DS: Why did you choose to visit Bangladesh at this time and what do you want to achieve from the visit?
Rashad Hussain: I was happy to return to Bangladesh. I was last here in my previous role as Special Envoy to the Organization for Islamic Cooperation during the Obama Administration. I am coming following the Secretary of State's genocide and crimes against humanity determination committed by members of the Burmese military against Rohingya. This was an important time to visit, especially with it being the month of Ramadan.
DS: You have met the Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad and other civil society groups. What is your understanding of religious freedom in Bangladesh?
Rashad Hussain: The US continues to support religious freedom around the world, and I want to reiterate our government's support for religious minorities in Bangladesh. We are deeply concerned about a growing number of attacks against members of religious minority groups, such as the October 2021 violence during the Hindu Durga Puja festival. The rise in hate speech on social media and mob violence over the past year has created an increasingly precarious situation for minority communities. We commend the government's response to the violence in October, particularly the tone set by the Prime Minister when she offered a firm statement of community and religious tolerance and pledged a thorough investigation into the incidents.
DS: You have also visited the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar. A small group of Hindu and Christian Rohingyas also live there. What have you found during your visit there?
Rashad Hussain: When visiting the Hindu camps, they remarked that they feel like they can practice freely. There is one issue regarding the strict fencing they feel like disturbs some of their spiritual and traditional practices.
While we were unable to meet with Christian groups, my office is in close contact with the Christian community. They share their concerns with us about lack of access to places of worship, inability to visit their religious elders in other camps, and a lack of opportunity for religious education for Christian Rohingya children.
DS: You also met the government officials here. What message are you passing for the government?
Rashad Hussain: I thank them for their work condemning communal violence and encourage them to continue supporting freedom of religion or belief. I commend the government's continued support of Rohingya refugees. We recognize the immense responsibility and difficulties that come with hosting such a large group. Secretary Blinken declared on March 21 that Burma's military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya. Unfortunately, it appears that the conflict in Burma is far from settled.
I am encouraged by the MoU signed between the government of Bangladesh and UNHCR to expand services for Rohingya living on Bhashan Char but remain concerned that refugees relocated to the island are not guaranteed the right to reintegrate into Cox's Bazar if desired.
I am discouraged that the government's response to increased violence in Cox's Bazar is to restrict freedom of movement and fence off the area. The US government is eager to see the construction of pedestrian pocket gates. The fencing around the camps has made services inaccessible in many spots. Pocket gates will allow refugees to access humanitarian services and move freely for necessities.