Religious Freedom Report 2003
by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
US Department of State
establishes Islam as the state religion but also provides
for the right-–subject to law, public order, and morality--to
practice the religion of one's choice, and the Government
generally respects this provision in practice. However, although
the Government is secular, religion exerts a powerful influence
on politics, and the Government is sensitive to the Muslim
consciousness of the majority of its citizens.
was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom
during the period covered by this report. Citizens generally
are free to practice the religion of their choice; however,
police, who generally are ineffective in upholding law and
order, often are slow to assist members of religious minorities
who have been victims of crimes. Although the Government claims
that acts of violence against members of religious minority
groups are politically motivated and cannot be solely attributed
to religion, human rights activists claim that there has been
a continued increase in religiously-motivated violence.
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society
contributed to religious freedom; however, the number of Hindu,
Christian, and Buddhist minorities who experienced discrimination
by the Muslim majority has increased. During the period covered
by this report, the Government was led by the centrist Bangladesh
Nationalist Party (BNP), which heads a four-party coalition
that includes two Islamic parties. The majority of Hindus
traditionally vote for the opposition Awami League (AL). In
2002 the newly-elected BNP Government arrested and intimidated
AL leaders and repealed key legislation passed by the previous
AL administration. The animosity between the parties often
leads to politically motivated violence and heightens societal
tensions between Muslims and Hindus.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with
the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy
of promoting human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of approximately 53,000 square
miles, and its population is approximately 130 million. Sunni
Muslims constitute 88 percent of the population. Approximately
10 percent of the population is Hindu. The remainder of the
population mainly is Christian (mostly Catholic) and Buddhist.
Members of these faiths are found predominantly in the tribal
(non-Bengali) populations of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, although
many other indigenous groups in various parts of the country
are Christian as well. There also are small populations of
Shi'a Muslims, Sikhs, Baha'is, animists, and Ahmadis. Estimates
of their populations vary widely, from a few hundred up to
100,000 adherents for each faith. Religion is an important
part of community identity for citizens, including those who
do not participate actively in religious prayers or services;
atheism is extremely rare.
There are no reliable estimates of the number of missionaries
active in the country.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but
provides for the right--subject to law, public order, and
morality--to practice the religion of one's choice, and the
Government generally respects this provision in practice;
however, some members of the Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist
minorities experienced discrimination.
Religious organizations are not required to register with
the Government; however, all nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs), including religious organizations, are required to
register with the NGO Affairs Bureau if they receive foreign
financial assistance for social development projects. The
Government has the legal ability to cancel the registration
of an NGO or to take other actions against it. However, such
powers rarely were used and did not affect NGOs with religious
Family laws concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption differ
slightly depending on the religion of the person involved.
There are no legal restrictions on marriage between members
of different faiths.
Religion exerts a powerful influence on politics, and the
Government is sensitive to the Muslim consciousness of the
majority of its citizens.
The Government provides some monetary support for the development
of Muslim mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and Christian
Religion is taught in government schools, and parents have
the right to have their children taught in their own religion;
however, some claim that many government-employed religious
teachers of minority religions are neither members of the
religion they are teaching nor qualified to teach it. Although
transportation may not always be available for children to
attend religion classes away from school, in practice schools
with few religious minority students often work out arrangements
with local churches or temples, which then direct religious
studies outside school hours.
Major religious festivals and holy days of the Muslim, Hindu,
Buddhist, and Christian faiths are celebrated as national
holidays. In April Christians staged a demonstration on Holy
Thursday at the Parliament to demand a public holiday for
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
In January 2001, the High Court ruled illegal all fatwas,
or expert opinions on Islamic law. Fatwas include decisions
as to when holidays begin based upon the sightings of the
moon; matters of marriage and divorce; the meting out of punishments
for perceived moral transgressions; and other religious issues.
Islamic tradition dictates that only those Muftis (religious
scholars) who have expertise in Islamic law are authorized
to declare a fatwa. However, in practice, village religious
leaders sometimes make declarations in individual cases and
call the declaration a fatwa. Sometimes this results in extrajudicial
punishments, often against women for their perceived moral
transgressions. In deeming all fatwas illegal, the High Court's
intention was to end the extrajudicial enforcement of fatwas
or other declarations by religious leaders. The pronouncement
resulted in violent public protests (see Section III). Several
weeks later, the Appellate Court stayed the High Court's ruling.
No date has been set for rehearing the issue.
Foreign missionaries were allowed to work in the country;
however, their right to proselytize is not protected by the
Constitution, and local authorities and communities often
objected to efforts to convert persons from Islam to other
religions. Foreign missionaries often face delays of several
months in obtaining or renewing visas. In the past, some missionaries
who were perceived to be converting Muslims to other faiths
subsequently were unable to renew their visas, which must
be renewed annually. In mid-2001 the Department of Immigration
and Passports began to issue regularly a new visa category
for foreign missionaries working in the country. The processing
of the new visas apparently created complications initially;
however, there were no recent reports of any current problems
with receiving these visas. Some foreign missionaries reported
that internal security forces and others closely monitored
their activities. In addition, the Government pressured some
missionaries who advocated human rights by filing false allegations
There are no financial penalties imposed on the basis of religious
beliefs; however, religious minorities are disadvantaged in
practice in such areas as access to jobs in government or
the military, and in political office. The Government has
appointed some Hindus to senior civil service positions. However,
religious minorities remain underrepresented in some government
jobs, especially at the higher levels of the civil and foreign
services. Selection boards in the government services often
lacked minority group representation. The government-owned
Bangladesh Bank employs approximately 10 percent non-Muslims
in its upper ranks. Hindus dominate the teaching profession,
particularly at the high school and university levels. Some
Hindus report that Muslims tend to favor Hindus in some professions,
such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants. They attribute
this to the education that the British offered during the
19th century, which Muslims boycotted but Hindus embraced.
Employees are not required to disclose their religion, but
religion generally can be determined by a person's name.
Many Hindus have been unable to recover landholdings lost
because of discrimination in the application of the law, especially
under the now-defunct Vested Property Act. The Act was a Pakistan-era
law that allowed "enemy" (in practice Hindu) lands
to be expropriated by the Government. Approximately 2.5 million
acres of land were seized from Hindus, and almost all of the
10 million Hindus in the country were affected. Property ownership,
particularly among Hindus, has been a contentious issue since
partition in 1947. However, in April 2001, Parliament passed
the Vested Property Return Act. This law stipulated that land
remaining under government control that was seized under the
Vested Property Act be returned to its original owners, provided
that the original owners or their heirs remain resident citizens.
Hindus who fled to India and resettled there are not eligible
to have their land returned, and the Act does not provide
for compensation for or return of properties that the Government
has sold. By law, the Government was required to prepare a
list of vested property holdings by October 2001, and claims
were to have been filed within 90 days of the publication
date. No further claims were to be accepted after that period
expired. As of the end of the reporting period, the Government
had yet to publish the list of vested properties.
On November 26, 2002, the Parliament passed an amendment to
the Vested Property Act, allowing the Government unlimited
time to return the vested properties. The properties are to
remain under the control of Deputy Commissioners until a tribunal
settles ownership. The amendment also gives the Deputy Commissioners
the right to lease such properties until they are returned
to their owners. The Government claimed that this provision
would prevent the properties from being stolen.
the Forestry Department inaugurated an eco-park on the lands
inhabited by the predominantly Christian Khasi tribals in
Mouluvibazar. Although indigenous Khasis had lived on these
lands for generations, the Government did not recognize their
ownership. The Government claimed ownership and stated that
the Khasis were occupying the land illegally. The Government
did not undertake any activities to implement the eco-park
project during the reporting period, but the project has not
been officially cancelled. In July 2002, Forest Department
guards killed a Khasi member, Abinash, and injured 10 others
in an attempt to evict the Khasis. Police had not arrested
anyone in connection with the killing by the end of the reporting
Under the Muslim Family Ordinance, female heirs inherit less
than male relatives do, and wives have fewer divorce rights
than husbands. Men are permitted to have up to four wives,
although society strongly discourages polygyny, and it rarely
is practiced. Laws provide some protection for women against
arbitrary divorce and the taking of additional wives by husbands
without the first wife's consent, but the protections generally
apply only to registered marriages. Marriages in rural areas
sometimes are not registered because of ignorance of the law.
Under the law, a Muslim husband is required to pay his ex-wife
alimony for 3 months, but this law is not always enforced.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
Reports of harassment by BNP supporters of Hindus, who traditionally
vote for the AL, preceded and followed the October 2001 election.
Reported incidents included killings, rape, looting, and torture.
The BNP acknowledged reports of atrocities committed between
Muslims and Hindus; however, the BNP claimed that they were
exaggerated. The Home Minister was unable to confirm reports
that Hindus had fled the country and insisted that there was
no link between religion and the violence. He also dismissed
allegations that the BNP was linked to the perpetrators. In
late November 2001, the High Court ordered the Government
to look into and report on attacks on religious minorities,
and to demonstrate that it is taking adequate steps to protect
minorities. The Government submitted its report to the High
Court on August 5, 2002. The report claimed that some of the
incidents of post-election violence were not connected to
communal relations. It also alleged that some of the reports
of violence were fabricated or exaggerated.
Since the October 2001 elections, religious minorities reportedly
have continued to be targeted for attacks. However, many such
reports have not been verified independently. The Government
sometimes has failed to investigate the crimes and prosecute
the perpetrators, who are often local gang leaders.
On May 12, 2002, 12 unidentified persons broke the lock and
opened the main gate of Dabua Benubon Bihar Buddhist Monastery
at Beltoli before inmates and local residents chased them
away. Using a compilation of newspaper reports, Ain-O-Shalish
Kendra (The Law and Arbitration Center), a human rights NGO,
filed a writ petition with the High Court asking that the
Government be ordered to investigate the incidents reported
in the newspapers and to submit its findings to the court.
The Government submitted its report to the court in August
stating that it had taken action against perpetrators of violence
against members of the minority communities wherever such
incidents took place. The Government report said investigations
revealed that many of the reports were false or exaggerated.
On April 28, 2002, Madan Gopal, a Hindu priest, was stabbed
to death by a criminal gang at Radha Madan Asram in Khagrachhari.
The criminals also looted gold statues from the temple. Newspaper
reports quoted temple authorities as saying that the killing
of the priest was a result of the assailants' failed attempt
On April 22, 2002, a Buddhist monk, Ganojyoti Mohasthobir,
was killed at a Buddhist temple and orphanage at Rauzan in
Chittagong. According to media reports, his killing was related
to a land dispute. Home Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury and
Foreign Minister Morshed Khan visited the temple after the
killing. They assured the public that the incident would be
properly investigated and that those involved would be brought
to trial. On December 22, 2002, police arrested a suspect
in connection with the case, which remained under investigation
at the end of the reporting period.
One human rights activist claimed that, especially after the
October 2001 elections, religious minority groups have been
targeted for acts of violence, which has led to the necessity
of guards being present at church and temple ceremonies.
In November 2001, Principal Gopal Krishna Muhuri of Nazirhat
College in Chittagong was killed by unidentified assailants.
Following the killing, Hindus staged a violent demonstration,
claiming that Muhuri was killed because he was a Hindu. Muhuri's
family stated that he was unpopular with the Jammat-i-Islami
party because he refused it and other political parties access
to the college's campus. It was unclear whether the killing
was connected to the attacks against Hindus after the October
2001 elections. In November 2002, police filed a case against
12 persons, including 3 teachers and an accountant at the
college. On February 6, a Chittagong court sentenced four
of the accused to death and four to life in prison for their
involvement in the murder.
In June 2001, in Baniachar, Gopalganj District, a bomb exploded
inside a Catholic church during Sunday Mass, killing 10 persons
and injuring 20 others. The army arrived to investigate approximately
10 hours after the blast. Police detained various persons
for questioning, but by the end of the period covered by this
report, the police reported no progress on the case. A judicial
commission was formed in December 2001 to investigate the
Baniachar bombing. In September 2002, the commission submitted
its report to the Government. The commission's final report
blamed Sheikh Hasina and other AL party members for six of
the seven bomb attacks that occurred in 1999, 2000, and 2001,
including the June 2001 attack. However, two of the three
commission members dissented, alleging that the head of the
commission, Judge Abdul Bari Sarkar, had inserted his personal
views in the final report.
Feminist author Taslima Nasreen remained abroad during the
period covered by this report, while criminal charges were
still pending against her for insulting the religious beliefs
of the country's Muslims. On May 26, 2002, the Government
banned her latest book, a sequel to an earlier novel that
was also banned for being "anti-Islamic." On October
13, 2002, a court sentenced Nasreen, in absentia, to 1 year
in jail for her "derogatory remarks about Islam,"
in a case filed by a local Jamaat-e-Islami leader in 1999.
In April a grade 12 Board of Education English test asked
students to write a paragraph on how they and their families
celebrated the Muslim feast, Eid-ul-Fitr, alienating non-Muslim
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including
of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally
removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow
such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
Relations between the religious communities generally are
amicable. Persons who practice different religions often join
each other's festivals and celebrations, such as weddings.
Shi'a Muslims practice their faith without interference from
Sunnis. Nevertheless, clashes between religious groups occasionally
occur. In recent years, there have been cases of violence
directed against religious minority communities that have
resulted in the loss of lives and property. Police, who generally
are ineffective in upholding law and order, often are slow
to assist in such cases, thereby perpetuating an atmosphere
of impunity for acts of violence (see Section II).
Intercommunal violence caused many Hindus to emigrate to India
between 1947 and 1971 and continued on a smaller scale throughout
the 1980s. Since the 1991 return to democracy, emigration
of Hindus has decreased significantly, which generally can
be attributed to the significant reduction in the Hindu population
over the last 30 years. In recent years, emigration has been
primarily motivated by economic and family reasons. Nevertheless,
incidents of communal violence continue to occur.
Newspapers reported attacks on Hindu homes and rapes of Hindu
women at several places in the country soon after the October
2001 election. According to a human rights organization, at
least 10 Hindu women were raped and a number of Hindu homes
were looted by low-level BNP workers a few days before the
BNP took power from the non-partisan caretaker government
that supervised the election. Some incidents of rape and looting
also took place in the southwestern district of Bagerhat.
The situation improved after the new government members visited
the areas and deployed additional police to troubled locations.
In February 2002, an AL-backed Convention on Crimes Against
Humanity alleged "systematic persecution" of religious
minorities and called for the perpetrators to be brought to
trial under local and international laws.
Human rights groups and press reports indicated that vigilantism
against women accused of moral transgressions occurred in
rural areas, often under a fatwa, and included punishments
such as whipping. One human rights organization recorded 32
such fatwa cases in 2002. In these cases, 19 persons were
lashed and others faced punishments ranging from physical
assault to shunning of families by their communities.
In the past, members of the Ahmadi sect, whom many mainstream
Muslims consider heretical, were the target of attacks and
harassment. An Ahmadiya mosque in Kushtia was captured by
mainstream Muslims in 1999 and remained under police control
for approximately 3 years, preventing Ahmadiyas from worshipping.
In August 2002, the Ahmadiyas regained control of their mosque.
Public reaction to the High Court's January 2001 ruling that
fatwas were illegal resulted in violence. Following the court's
decision, a number of NGOs organized a rally in Dhaka and
transported busloads of persons, mostly women, from all parts
of the country to express support for the ruling, which they
said was a victory for women and for all who suffered abuses
in the name of fatwa. However, Muslim groups contended that
fatwas were an integral part of a Muslim's daily life and
called the ruling an attack on their religious freedom. Islamic
groups organized blockades to prevent buses from entering
Dhaka for the rally and protested the ruling and the NGO rally.
In the ensuing violence, a police officer was killed inside
a mosque, and an NGO office was ransacked.
The law permits citizens to proselytize; however, local authorities
and communities often object to efforts to convert persons
from Islam to other religions. Moreover, strong social resistance
to conversion from Islam means that most missionary efforts
by Christian groups are aimed at serving communities that
have been Christian for several generations or longer.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with
the Government, as well as religious and minority community
representatives, in the context of its overall dialog and
policy of promoting human rights.
On an informal basis, the Embassy also has assisted some U.S.
Christian-affiliated relief organizations in guiding paperwork
for schools and other projects through government channels.
The Government has been receptive to discussion of such subjects
and generally helpful in resolving problems.
The Embassy is encouraging the Government through the Ministry
for Religious Affairs to develop and expand its training program
for Islamic religious leaders, which provides course work
for religious leaders on human rights, HIV/AIDS, and gender
on December 18, 2003