There is a common perception in Bangladesh that religious communities generally live together in peaceful coexistence and have done so since the beginning of time. This is exemplified by the way in which a number of religious celebrations and festivities, such as Eid, Durga Puja, Buddha Purnima and Christmas, are observed and celebrated in the country by the whole population. In a country with a religious majority where 90 percent of the population is Muslim, while other faiths such as Hindu, Buddhist and Christian faiths comprise the remainder, this is a significant achievement. In similar circumstances, in many other parts of the world, the respect for religious diversity is not as manifest as it is in Bangladesh. While the people of Bangladesh in general can and should be praised for this achievement, constitutional guarantees providing equal status of all religions serve as a bulwark against intolerance.
Nonetheless, although Bangladesh has stood out in many ways as a tolerant society, increasingly there are indications that this peaceful coexistence is coming under growing pressure. For example, there have been instances of land grabbing, where religious minority communities see ownership of their land under threat. And the Ramu incidents with destruction of Buddhist places of worship in 2012 are still fresh in peoples' minds. Furthermore, the number of Hindu population has halved during the last 30 years. For real or perceived reasons, there is a sense that Bangladesh is losing some of its tolerance of minority communities.
In spite of these setbacks, religious intolerance and extremism are still not common in Bangladeshi society. Sadly, this cannot be said for other parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, where over the last few years we have witnessed an expansion of extremist ideologies, even in countries which hitherto were models of tolerance, not unlike Bangladesh today. With this in mind, it cannot be denied that Bangladesh has recently experienced a number of incidents that distinguish it from its traditional spirit of tolerance. A number of recent violent attacks against persons from religious minority groups and their places of worship have resulted in the loss of lives and destruction of property. These incidents include bomb attacks against Hindu temples in Dinajpur and the killing of a Hindu priest near Panchagarh, violent armed attacks against Christian priests in Pabna and Dinajpur, and a number of other priests receiving death threats, armed attacks against a Shia procession in Dhaka and a Shia Mosque in Shibganj resulting in the death of the muezzin. And we are all aware of the numerous violent attacks against on-line activists over the last couple of years.
Incidents like these can be manifestations of a changing society and the emergence of an environment in which fear, violence and intolerance exist. This trend is of utmost concern and needs to be taken seriously by all actors in the political arena as well as among the leaders of all religious faiths. Situations in which individuals have lost their lives and places of worship have been destroyed need to be clearly condemned, and perpetrators brought to justice. If not, the risk of further incidents is high and a culture of impunity can prevail.
In April 2015 at the High-Level Thematic Debate on Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation: Fostering Peaceful, Inclusive Societies and Countering Violent Extremism, the UN Secretary General remarked that the UN “will emphasise the core values of peace, justice and human dignity as true alternatives to the extremists' hatred and fear. It will focus on prevention through equitable institutions, inclusive governance, and respect for human rights and the rule of law…we must also enable women to assume their rightful, equal leadership role in this movement”.
With this in mind, the United Nations in Bangladesh seeks to underline the importance of promoting a culture which respects the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The protection of human rights, at the centre of any such policy, needs to be accompanied by corresponding legislation, policies and practical measures. In this case, the necessary institutional frameworks for the executive, legislature and judiciary, in line with principles of transparency, rule of law and popular participation, need to be both elaborated and firmly anchored.
On 9 March 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief who visited Bangladesh in September 2015 will present his report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. This report, and the recommendations made therein, will hopefully be seen as an opportunity for Bangladesh to establish a platform for further discussion and action to strengthen the enjoyment of the freedom of religion or belief as well as an opportunity to enhance the conditions of religious minorities in the county.
The writer is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh.