Background: This discussion took place in the context of preparation for a regional consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia, held in Dhaka, Bangladesh January 10-11, 2011. A December 13 interview was conducted by telephone between Michael Bodakowski and Francis Halder, amplified through email correspondence in March, 2011. A Catholic Bangladeshi, Mr. Halder describes the challenges and history of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region and the peacebuilding efforts of faith-inspired organizations, including the NGO he works for, Anando. He discusses the dynamics of Christian groups working in a Muslim-majority country, noting a lack of understanding between faith groups, particularly towards Christians. Conversion remains a topic of debate and tension. He links corruption problems, which are serious, to a deterioration of society’s moral values and sees the need and potential for greater roles of faith leaders. He touches upon interfaith initiatives and their importance for community relations.
Can you tell us about the path you have taken to arrive to your present position today?
I was born in 1958 to a Catholic family in the coastal district of Bangladesh named Bagerhat. It was a farmer’s family. My father initially was a school teacher and my mother was a housewife. My father was educated in India before the partition of Pakistan, in undivided India. After independence in 1971, our homeland is now located in the territory of Bangladesh, and we are Bangladeshi. Our village is Machmara, very close to the international port town Mongla, not so far from the most famous mangrove forest in the world, the Sunderbans.
There is a Catholic mission with a big church as well as an Islamic mosque in our village. After my primary education in a mission school, I finished my secondary education at another missionary school named St. Paul’s High School. After completion of my secondary education, I went to a famous missionary college, Notre Dame in Dhaka, run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a congregation of Catholics. I spent two years there, then tried to enroll in the air force as a General Duty Pilot Officer, but unfortunately, I was not admitted. I then tried to gain access to the Agricultural University, which at that time was the only university in Bangladesh of its kind. I spent about six years there.
In 1984, after passing the required exams, I joined the government of Bangladesh and stayed there for about two years. In 1986, I left my government job and joined a faith-based NGO, Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, started for reconstruction of Bangladesh through multifaceted development. I worked with them for 12 years, first as agronomist, then as project and senior project manager, and finally promoted as area manager.
After that, I joined my present organization, Anando. Anando means “joy”: Doing something effective for community betterment is our joy. A German Catholic priest, Father Dr. Klaus Beurle was the founder of Anando. He stayed in Bangladesh through various development projects for 25 years, from 1975 to 2000. In 1996, I joined him as project coordinator, and I was very much involved in integrated community development. I still work with them today. Our main programs are children’s education, community health, homestead agriculture, and income generation supported by a savings and credit institution. Other major programs are the sectoral program for community and family peace and a students’ study support program, called Dishari, which means spark of light. We also had a cultural development program called Promotion of Judicious Culture; I feel strongly that without cultural development, no societal development program can sustain itself. Nowadays, there are other programs as well, including an income generation and disaster management and bio-diversity program, particularly for the Chittagong Hill Tracts region. There are the two main programs there, integrated and sectoral, which we are trying to implement today. They are funded by internal support within Bangladesh and other formal funding sources from donor partners abroad. Our primary overseas donor is from Germany, called Die licht Brucke-Germany; additional donors are also from Germany, as well as some from other countries.
Anando is a community development organization with a staff of 235. They have been working in four regions of Bangladesh. Our focus populations are the very poor, along with marginalized farmers, who are hardly sustaining themselves for survival. We have been working with 12,000 beneficiary families.
Could you speak more about your work in the Chittagong Hills Tracts?
In 1975, Bengalis started migrating to the Chittagong Hill Tracts as part of a political resettlement that had backing by the government of Bangladesh. Subsequently, there has been instability in the region. The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) was comprised mostly of indigenous people. The roots of the aboriginals here go back for a long time, and they have their own separate identity and different culture, by region. The government tried to reduce population pressures in other parts of the country by pushing excess population growth to this less densely populated CHT area. The resettled Bengali people were told that there is the possibility for economic growth there, by cultivating the huge abundant virgin land and fallow hills and valleys.
The local aboriginal population is comprised of 13 ethnic groups with separate identities and cultures, and they have historically not accepted other groups moving permanently into their own home region. This, however, is not the only reason why they are dissatisfied. There are other reasons as well, stemming from the Pakistani ruling period during the 1960s. In 1962, the government established a hydroelectric dam in CHT, acquiring a huge area of land and displacing about 1 million people from the hilly district Rangamati to the other hill districts in adjacent areas; the displaced received no rehabilitation or resettlement assistance. When the displaced discovered that other Bengalis from other parts of the country were then migrating to CHT and taking their land, they became angry, but there was no remedy for their grievances. Finally, under the leadership of Jana Sanghatiy Samity (an indigenous political wing), they met with the then-president of Bangladesh, Seikh Mujibor Rahman.
The president advised them to live like the other Bengalis. The indigenous groups were furious, and in revenge they organized a strong-armed cadre and started fighting against the Bangladesh government. It is assumed that they later received arms and military support from neighboring India as well. The fight continued for more than 20 years. There were severe casualties on both sides of the conflict. The gravity of the situation brought the conflicting sides to make several reconciliation attempts, which were accorded and signed during different political governments between 1987 and 1997. There were three different reconciliation attempts, with the third one resulting in a peace treaty on 22 September, 1997. The peace treaty was satisfactory, but in its implementation it did not really follow the agreed upon clauses. As a result, the local groups do not see any future hope for themselves.
Anando started relief and rehabilitation works just after peace treaty in 1997. The main project target was to create awareness, followed by building a harmonious community incorporating both the Bengalis and hill aboriginals occupying the same areas. It has been without doubt a difficult journey. As the different racial groups traditionally do not interact with one another, it has not been easy to motivate them to make sacrifices towards reconciliation. To turn the impossible into the possible, Anando started a peace education project—after several socio-economic development projects—to work towards building a harmonious community. This is the sixth year of the peace project, and the ice has started to melt. Now people from different groups visit each other, though more time is still needed for full reconciliation. We serve as mentors for the peacebuilding process, incorporating group, community elite, local government representatives, and other government officials, etc.
What faith actors are involved in the CHT peacebuilding process?
In the Chittagong Hills Tracts, most of the Bengali community is Muslim, and the indigenous communities are mainly from the Buddhist and Hindu faiths; there are very few Christians. The tensions are mainly between Muslims and Buddhists, as well as occasional interracial conflict among the local groups like Chakma, Marma, Tripura etc. We feel that unless the religious leaders start peacebuilding work and there is an informal, genuine accord among them, a peace process cannot be sustained. Indigenous people in the region have faith and trust in their religious leaders. We [Anando] invite religious leaders from various communities/races, and under their guidance and leadership we conduct seminars and workshops. Reconciliation has become easier now because of the intervention of religious leaders; before the treaty of 1997, peace was only a dream.
Local community and religious leaders lent a sense of truthfulness to the negotiation process. We selected leaders to join our workshops who are already faithful to the community and sincere about their intentions for peace. To achieve a real solution through faith and trust-building, we invited leaders or trainers from all communities that were involved in the conflict. Once clarity and trust have been achieved, then government officials were invited, to work towards a final understanding and agreement. We have found that this methodology brings results, with Anando serving as a neutral convener. At present, while there are several issues where agreements have been reached through negotiations, people are not aware of this. Thus conflicts still break out around those issues; we hope that dissemination of information will increase through broad community engagement.
The engagement of religious leaders is not new to us; our founder, Father Klaus, regularly communicated with religious leaders during his long stay in Bangladesh. He left Bangladesh in 2000, but he is still helping us and inspiring the community leaders to work toward sustainable reconciliation efforts that will be the foundation for real, long-term peace.
Do you work in other parts of the country?
Anando works in three other regions of Bangladesh, namely Dhaka, Cox's Bazaar, and Tangail, through fully-fledged community development projects, including permanent infrastructure development on our own land. Father Dr. Klaus purchased the land and started the work during his time in Bangladesh. However, our peace education work in CHT gets priority, given the special nature and unique needs of that region.
In your experience, how does the government engage local religious leaders?
As Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country, Muslim religious leaders have a big role in the socio-economic development of the country. About 20 years ago, the government started a training program for imams. I became aware of this program, which is still going on, when I was working in the North Bengal area. Imams and other Muslim religious leaders are invited to a 45-day development training at an Imam Training Center (ITC); these are located in different parts of Bangladesh. The program’s purpose is to establish a relationship between major social change and the role of imams in society and development, all in the light of the holy Qur’an. For example, the imams discuss birth control according to the holy Qur’an, so that the imams can guide people in to understand and accept its true teachings, and stay clear of any other propaganda that might exist.
Apart from the 45-day development training, the imams are also invited to various short courses from time to time, on contemporary issues. Sometimes, the religious leaders have some hesitation about participating in these programs, because they think that the government is trying to curtail and control their preaching voice. There is also fear from their side that the information disseminated from the training institutes is not always real Islamic thought and teaching. Some imams think that the government is modifying Islamic education, so their hearts are not always committed to the training programs and its contents. But many do participate fully. In Dhaka and Chittagong, there are several ITCs where the government is doing a lot of good nation-building work for the betterment of the community, working through imams.
Do you face any challenges as a Catholic organization working with primarily non-Christian groups?
Yes, there are a few challenges working with this primarily non-Christian community. First of all is an identity crisis: Everybody looks at native Christians in a strange way, usually asking when s/he converted, or what is her/his earlier origin, race, or affiliation. Secondly, people ask what benefits (financial or other commitment) are derived from conversion and if s/he is allowed to talk with converted priests in Bangladesh. Thirdly, there are sporadic questions regarding Jesus Christ, his virgin birth, death, and resurrection; these are matters about which a non-Muslim never has the courage to ask a Muslim publicly. As a member of the minority Christian community, most of the time we are subject to such odd dealings.
But it is a fact that when other Muslim groups perform faith and development work, there is no objection. Fear of proselytizing and conversion to Christianity is the main problem for us. Fr. Dr. Klaus came here with the spirit of interfaith dialogue and cooperation. He never believed in willful conversion, as he deeply believed in humanism. In CHT as well as in other parts of Bangladesh, the Catholics are not at all interested in converting people, but rather they extend their noble development work and its beneficial message to the entire community, regardless of faith and tradition. They expect nothing in return (except love), yet sometimes people misunderstand them.
The Christians believe in the Kingdom of God and hold the idea that they should please God, extending love and wellbeing to their neighbors, and preaching His works ( i.e. love), all over the world through the Gospel; it is also the command of Christ. But in Bangladesh there are so many barriers. You cannot preach the Christian doctrine openly without facing problems, because 82 percent of the countrymen are Muslim. Less than 0.5 percent is Christian, so you can understand our position in Bangladesh. However, a large number of development organizations are operated by Christians. Our welfare work is well known to all communities as well as to the government, and that helps to dispel some of the tensions and bad feelings against us.
With regard to social works, if you want to start working in the field of development through an NGO, you must register with the government, clearly stating your mission, vision, nature of work, executive committee, funding sources, etc. If you would like to send an NGO to Bangladesh, you must also apply through the government. After registration, the government verifies your project and funds. An organization starts work after initial registration, which needs to be renewed at five-year intervals. You cannot accomplish any work without registration. There are many Catholic and Protestant organizations, which are registered and working in development, as per a Memorandum of Understanding and rules with communities; they work regardless of caste and creed. Apart from traditional development work, the Catholics also have taken to interfaith unity week between the Catholics and Protestant, hoping to see reunification.
What are the challenges facing gender equality? What are the faith dimensions, and what roles are faith-inspired actors playing?
Women are not yet free in Bangladesh. Only 15 percent of women are educated, leaving almost 85-percent who are illiterate. They are under the custody of the male members of the family, and they are often victims of the faith tenets espoused by religious leaders. They are forced to stay under a veil and restricted to their household. Women are the victims of superstitions and dogmatic religious orders. As per Hindu law, women do not have property inheritance rights from their fathers.
However, I do see some progress. A large number of NGOs are working in Bangladesh to enlighten women, particularly Muslim women. Many of these NGOs have intervened and started to melt the ice around these difficult issues. Some Christian leaders have established different development organizations. Now, many in Bangladesh are continuing the gender work which was started initially by the missionaries. Examples are Barisal Development Society, Kainonia, Annyasa Foundation, Caritas-Bangladesh, Bangladesh Baptist Sanghaw, Bangladesh Baptist Federation, Anando, Bangla German Sampreeti, Deepshikha, etc.
Rural women have a difficult time getting access to education, though secondary level of education is free for female students in Bangladesh. Women have to face the problem of being under a male-dominated society. When girls are very young, they are not encouraged to seek education. Instead, they are encouraged to focus on household matters and look for a bridegroom a little later on. A challenge for gender advancement is that many of the religious leaders are not well educated, particularly in Muslim and Hindu communities. They preach what they know and what they understand from the tradition, but it is not always accurate and real information. In most cases, it actually goes against women and their rights.
Corruption is a current issue of concern among many in Bangladesh. What efforts do you know of that are fighting corruption? Are faith-inspired actors involved?
Nowadays, corruption is a serious concern in Bangladesh. I think the time has come for moral ethics-building in Bangladesh, as corruption is almost everywhere, irrespective of levels of development and religious communities. Certainly, its adverse effects create pain for all, particularly the hardcore poor and marginalized groups of the community. Due to corruption, the share of wealth held by the poor and marginalized is gradually being reduced, until it reaches a level that is close to nil. The Anti-corruption Commission started playing a vital role during the caretaker government and now is starting to make new rules, but it is facing challenges with the political nature of the government. Civil society as well cannot move and make progress due to many barriers in this politicized government. The University of Dhaka is the biggest educational institution in Bangladesh and they recently introduced a development center under the banner of Moral Development.
I think our current unethical values and greedy attitudes are jeopardizing our society and its progress. There are many factors accounting for this; the youth feel that they are the victims of greed. As a result, their frustration status is high. The time has come to integrate morality with academic education. We have to make an effort to teach common moral ethics and honor the traditional values, which we all hold through common practice from our forefathers. Here the role of faith-inspired actors in combating corruption needs to be distinct. It is true that in the churches there is a platform for motivating people against corruption in the light of holy Bible, during sermons. The priests are doing this without hesitation through their service from the altar. But in mosques there is frequent debate on what to say about corruption and how to say it, because the imam is a paid man and his payment is collected from the community share, particularly from rich men's contributions. Further, the imam of the national mosque is selected to serve for a certain period by the government, so he also cannot move with that noble cause in his own way, as he might wish.
What other kinds of institutions with faith links or inspiration are working on development? What categories do you see? What are the best among them? Which are the weakest?
The Islamic Foundation is run by the government, and has an implementation wing in the Imam Training Center (ITC) working on development. Muslim Aid is the biggest faith-based international organization and has been working in Bangladesh for a long time, including relief and rehabilitation work.
The Muslim people in general have large local flocks encircling the mosques and taking on various development initiatives, like youth addict rehabilitation, medical camps, marriage of underserved community girls, etc. We have worked with Muslim Aid, through consultation and sharing ideas, while constructing our own Vocational Training Center in CHT at Khagrachari.
The Hindu community has almost no institutions except Rama Krishna Mission, which very recently established branches of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKON) in almost every district of Bangladesh, coordinating from West Bengal, India.
The Christians have different institutions—some of which are faith-based and engaged in teaching the gospel. They are registered, and some are solely in development. The Christian community is committed to working for all communities because of our religious tenets. At the moment, they are engaged in building common moral ethical standards in society. The Catholic Bishops Conference in Bangladesh is committed to this. Caritas, the biggest faith-inspired organization in Bangladesh, is conducting programs together with the Catholic Bishops Conference on moral ethics-building, youth formation, social works, mixed-marriages, women's issues, interfaith dialogue, gender equity, etc. There are other faith-linked projects that are organized by the Bangladesh Baptist Sanghaw, the Bangladesh Baptist Federation sponsored by World Council of Churches. World Vision is also active here in Bangladesh, working through their faith links and inspiration for poor communities through development, irrespective of caste and creed.
What networks do you belong to or do you know of and how are these helpful?
Nationally, I belong to the Bangladesh Inter-religious Council for Peace and Justice and the Catholic Bishop's Conference of Bangladesh.
Globally, I am part of the World Fellowship of Inter-religious Council, the United Religion Initiative, and the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.
There are plenty of Muslim-Christian interfaith works Bangladesh, especially since the call from the former crown prince of Jordan (now King Abdullah) in the year 2010. They are very helpful as it creates understanding between both communities. Before, Muslim community members, particularly the imams, never visited the temples or churches, but nowadays they are visiting churches, and even temples at the invitation of Ramkrishna Mission or ISKON.
What kinds of issues would you like to see addressed during the consultation? What are the most important gaps in knowledge?
I think there are three pillars vital for peace —tolerance, social justice, and willingness for reconciliation. I believe that without these three pillars we cannot establish peace in the family, in the community and finally, in the state. We need to know the details of these values, and how to establish them as inherent human qualities.
The most important gap is knowledge on faith links to development. We need a project to promote greater knowledge, including issues of funding for organizations with faith links, and to help facilitate government approval processes.