A Discussion with Bishop Paul Sarker, Moderator Church of Bangladesh, Bishop of Dhaka
June 22, 2014
Background:Bishop Paul Sarker is the moderator of the Church of Bangladesh, a member of the Anglican Communion. In this discussion with Nathaniel Adams, Sarker traces the journey of the church and Bangladesh over the last 40 years since separating from the Church of Pakistan in 1974 after the country’s independence. He discusses the Church of Bangladesh Social Development Program (CBSDP), what the bishop calls a natural extension of the church, in sectors including education, health, and disaster relief. He also touches on the church’s response to recent disasters in the garment industry. He discusses the challenges of transitioning from charity to development work and the importance of the church’s teachings in driving their work in the community. He reflects on the rise of conservative interpretations of Islam in Bangladesh today.
First of all, you were raised in an Anglican family is that right?
Yes, I came from the south, from a High Anglican background. My father was a teacher and a Catechist. He was a local leader in the Anglican Church. The Anglican Church in Bangladesh eventually united with the English Presbyterian Church, which was concentrated in the north. After this we don’t say that we are completely Anglican, but still we have membership with the Anglican Communion.
I’m curious about the history of the Church of Bangladesh. When was the church founded?
During the British period, we were actually attached to the Kolkata Anglican Diocese, in West Bengal, and at that time we were grouped together with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Burma, India, and Pakistan under one metropolitan Diocese. So with the partition of India, we separated as part of Pakistan and we became part of the Church of Pakistan. Then with the independence of Bangladesh, we became the Church of Bangladesh. Officially we say 1974 because that is the year we went to Karachi and formally cut ties.
Do you still maintain close relations with the Church of Pakistan?
No. We have some sort of fellowship with them, but the contact is not very frequent. Lately we have had more relations with the Church of North India and the Church of South India.
How did you come into the church and how did you decide to devote your life to it?
That is a very interesting question. I used to criticize the church, and the church authorities a lot when I was young. I was very much involved with the student Christian movement, which was a very critical movement. Then I went to the Philippines in 1977, during the martial law era. I was very much moved by the theological lectures I heard there, particularly those on social change. I thought “wow theology is so much broader than I thought, there is so much depth.” That trip moved me very much. I came back and finished my degree; I was studying with Bengali Literature at University of Dhaka. I was planning on being a professor of literature, but then I thought more about it and I decided that I wanted to concentrate on theology. I was close to a bishop, and discussed it with him. He said “If you want to study theology you have to become a priest, there is no other option because we cannot send you to study theology and then have you do nothing for the church.” So then I took one year to think about it. I decided that I would approach it like being a professor, with the view that I can teach and maybe can change the church a little bit. That was my thinking. I really wanted the church to do something for the poor; so they can at least get some food to eat. I ended up doing a master's in theology from the Presbyterian Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Now I realize that bringing about change in the church is not very easy! Even though I have some power, as a bishop I still have limited ability to really make changes.
What is the history of the church’s social development programs? Was that something that existed at the beginning?
Well I think it’s been a natural extension of the church. The first bishop of the Anglican Church was a British monk, James De Blair, and it might begin with him. At that time, we only had a school program, primary school, and two or three medical clinics. The activities were not too widespread. But when we got our first Bengali Bishop B.D. Mondal in 1975, he really started a lot of social programs.
He was very interested in social development, and he started one children’s program after another, social development programs, and more clinics and health programs. After some time we got funding from DFID and we started more schools in the rural area. Just after independence a lot of money was coming in from abroad, just flowing into the country. He tried to do something not just for the Christians, but for our neighbors as well. So this social development work has grown increasingly since then.
One thing that we are struggling with now is that we not very professional and skilled in our development work because in the early days we had more of a charity mindset rather than a development mindset. It takes a lot of work to keep the work relevant and responsive. We are still struggling with that today because the church members always want to see more charity, but there are no funds for that nowadays.
When was the Church of Bangladesh Social Development Program (CBSDP) formally begun as an organization?
It started in 1971 during the reconstruction of the country. But I think that those activities were not very formal. By 1979, CBSDP had become organized and registered officially with the government. It has expanded greatly since then. They are now working on education, health, as well as cyclone relief and disaster management. They have also started a microcredit program.
Does the Church of Bangladesh run schools?
We have a very small one here at our headquarters, but unfortunately it is not growing. We might have to close it down. We recently opened a new one in old Dhaka at St. Thomas Cathedral. My wife is the head there and that one is running very well. Our seminary is also there at St. Thomas. I used to be the principal of that seminary. Now we have someone from West Malaysia Dioceses serving as the principle. I studied with him at Bishop’s College and invited him to come here as a missionary and his Dioceses allowed it.
So we have a small seminary there and two schools. One is a boarding school that we use to raise some money to support our programs. The other is supported by international donations; we call it the Street School. It provides free education for street children.
We have also a social development program, they are working with slum women and prostitutes, we call that the EKOTA program. You can read all about our programs in our printed materials. Our problem is we don’t have the traditional people who can write those types of documents quickly and regularly. English fluency is part of the problem.
Does the Church of Bangladesh work closely with other groups on development programs?
We have some relationships with both Christian and secular organizations, but we don’t often collaborate very closely. This is an area where we are trying to improve. In fact, the Anglican Alliance facilitator for Asia, Michael Roy, is part of our church. He has been in that role for around two years. So that is an important international connection for us.
Why do you think the church is always so involved in social work? What inspires that?
That is the ministry of Jesus Christ actually. I think that the development work should go hand in hand with the spiritual work of the church. We cannot survive as Christians by faith, we have to do some service for humankind. But it depends on the context where you do what, and in which way. I think the church cannot avoid social work, there’s always an element of that involved. For example this year the Anglican Church Worldwide (ACW) is going to hold a seminar on disability issues in Malaysia next month. I am going there with a friend who is working with Plan International. We would be very willing to support a project on the topic in Bangladesh.
But sometimes we have a problem keeping the balance. Sometimes we can become too focused the development work and forget spirituality, and sometimes it is reversed, so you need to keep the balance actually. It is challenging because I think from the beginning, maybe from the era of the missionaries when we started all of these programs, people thought ‘the church is always there to give us support, for education, for economic development, and everything.’ So this is an attitude that we want to change now actually, the church is not only there to support you, but you have to also share the ministry of our church. I think spirituality, Jesus Christ and his Gospels, should be given more emphasis, because this is the inspiration for doing the development work, but sometimes people don’t bother with that.
What do you see as the future of the church here in Bangladesh? What’s your vision for the coming years?
I think we need to focus on our mission work. We have three main Christian denominations in Bangladesh and our church is the smallest. The Catholic Church is bigger, and then the Baptist. We are so small, but through all of this work we are trying to witness Jesus Christ, so it is our mission. Sometimes we cannot preach the Gospel openly, or directly, so I think through all of this hard work, we are indirectly preaching. The first Bengali bishop, he was not very interested in bringing more people to Christianity and to our church. In the last five years, since I have taken over we have decided that those who want to receive the gospel we should give them the gospel. Those who want to be Christian, they should be able to do that. These are mainly in the tribal areas. We have planted eight new churches in northwest among the Santali people mainly. From the Dhaka diocese I started something in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, but I’m going very slowly, because that area is very sensitive.
We have some Lasallian Brothers here in Bangladesh, there are a few that have been here for a long time, I think more than 30 years. And once I shared with one of them the works of the church here, and he made a good point, which I appreciate: that if Christians are only content among themselves, and not interested in bringing in new Christians, you will not understand the new life in Christ. So it is good to have some new Christians to bring vitality and fresh perspectives to the church. We have been here for a long time, it was maybe 200 years ago that my forefathers became Christian. But we don’t feel that same zeal now, so the new Christians can open up our eyes a little bit.
Is there worry about proselytism among people in Bangladesh?
Some groups are doing it. There are some groups that are more active in this area, particularly those leaders who have converted from Islam, but I’m not very clear about them. There are a lot of risks, if a Muslim converts to Christianity, he will be cut off from his family. He cannot inherit his father’s property according to the Islamic law. Sometimes there is even a risk to your life for conversion. But still, because in Bangladesh people are more tolerant, unlike Pakistan, so often they accept Christians and others.
Are there foreign evangelical missionaries?
There are, but they have to work with the local church. And there are a few that are not with the church. They are doing some development work, but underneath this their main focus is the evangelical work. There are some Koreans here for example, they are active in Dhaka and Chittagong; some of the bigger cities. They are very evangelical and are running some projects around the country, but they don’t understand the context. This is why they do not see a good result in their work.
How active is the church in interfaith efforts? Is that a focus of the church at all?
We are doing interfaith work, but not in a very formal way. I think day-to-day dialogue is increasing in the church. And in our development programs and school programs, we have staff from other faiths; many of our development workers and teachers are Muslims. The Roman Catholic Church is a leader in interfaith of course. When the present ruling party, the Awami League came into power in 1991, they supported a Department of World Religions at Dhaka University headed by a nice man named Kazi Nurul Islam, they are doing good interfaith work.
I know 2013 saw a lot of violence against religious minorities. Was the church concerned at all about violence against Christians?
We were not too concerned. But we did hold some events, we came out with banners and we released a position on the violence through a press release. Everyone seems to agree with us, but nothing happens really.
We have done the same when there is violence in Pakistan, for example something happened in Peshawar recently. I say that whenever there is violence against a religious minority community, whether it is against Hindus, Buddhists, even Muslims in other countries, we should raise our voice.
Even though the Christian community is so small, it seems very influential. Do you feel like it has a special role in Bangladesh?
The government and ordinary people of Bangladesh, they very much appreciate not just our development work, but also our approach of humble service. This is particularly true of our educational institutions and health programs. If you go to the village, people are quite grateful for the work of the Christian community in fact the level of trust is much greater than it is for the government and secular NGOs.
Once when I was young priest, the bishop sent me to a place where there was a big flood. The people there were suffering; they didn’t have seeds to produce crops and things like that. So I was doing some survey work and they asked where I was from. I said I was from the church. So they said “Ok then you can do something for us, but many others have come, one after one, they told us this and that, but they never came back.” They knew the church would come back.
Is there an issue that you are particularly passionate about, something that really is a big issue for you personally?
The Archbishop recently visited, just two weeks ago. I made a speech at the visit, in which I talked about the challenges for our country and for our church. Some of the main challenges of our country, I think are population growth and corruption. I said that publically, although most of the audience were Christians. Another big challenge for our country is natural disasters, which are increasing due to climate change. I think that we have to work in the political system to introduce some bills and make change happen, but now our political system is very broken. As for the challenges of the church, I suggested we needed to be a self-sufficient church. We also need spiritual development, in particular to provide a Christian foundation to our children and young people.
What is the Church of Bangladesh’s relationship with the government, or do you typically stay out of politics?
We are not very involved in the politics, but we have some kind of relationship with government institutions, because of our work in local areas, wherever we work it needs to be under the government’s jurisdiction.
Has the church been involved in the garment industry disasters?
Yes, we were the first church to respond. We had a fast response. Our partners very much appreciated that, and when I sent them some letters and some proposals about how we can protect the rights of garment workers in Bangladesh, they took it very seriously and they started a campaign in London. I even received a request from BBC: ‘Bishop, are you in London, can we interview you?’ I said ‘No, I am in Bangladesh.’ We received a lot of press and had a lot of strong supporters who took the cause on.It’s had a lot of effect, because GDP is growing, and I think the main contribution is coming from garment workers. But the problem is the workers are giving their labor for the country, but they don’t have much privilege and they are vulnerable to abuse.
It sounds like not much has changed in terms of workers’ protection since Rana Plaza.
Very complicated to do some good work in Bangladesh! Not easy, not easy. And everything is politicized, that is why we are a bit cautious and worried. Things have changed a little bit slowly, because the government is trying, but we cannot do much because of the manufacturer’s association. The manufacturers are very strong in Bangladesh and they are not very keen on reform.
I’ve read a lot about how the garment industry is changing traditional family dynamics because more women are working. Do you think that has contributed to the emergence of new conservative Islamic groups?
Oh yes. Hefazat-i-Islami has said very directly that the country must stop this. These conservative groups have a very good strategic plan actually, better than the liberal Muslims, and they have a lot of money. Nowadays if you go to the university, some professors are even associated with Hefazat. We used to think that professors could not be conservative Muslims, but now we see that things are different.
They are doctors and Ph.D. holders, but they are still very much conservative. One thing may be money, another thing may be brainwashing. My daughter used to go to the public university, and she told me they had a professor who is not giving lectures on academic subjects, but he is actually giving lectures on Islam. Now she said that he offered the position of vice chancellor at a new university somewhere.
Do you think that Bangladeshis working in the Gulf are bringing back more conservative interpretations of Islam?
I don’t think this is the main cause, because those who are the labor in the Middle East often have a very negative experience. They say that those Muslims treated them like slaves. The problem is they don’t know anything about the conditions before going there and when they get there and really understand what it is like, they can’t go back. They are trapped there. They have already sold their land to pay their way and they have to earn money so they have to tolerate everything. Those that are more conservative are a different class, a different part of society.
How do you see the work of Islamic charities that have grown in number substantially since the 1990s?
Yes, they have their own Islamic missions to promote Islamic development. They are doing some work following the example of Christian missions. But most of the money is being spent on the madrassas and that is the place where they are giving the wrong interpretation of Islam to the younger generation. That is the main problem. Our present government is trying to reform the madrassas and introduce secular subjects, but they have not made much progress. The government could have done something in the past, but they did not think about this. They even used these Quomi madrasas for political purposes sometimes, but now they understand that they have made a mistake and they are trying to reform things. There are so many madrassa nowadays. There are a lot of poor people, so they often go to the madrasa for education.