Bangladesh, The Catholic Church in

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Encompassing the fertile delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent, Bangladesh is bordered on the north, east, and west by India, on the southeast by Burma, and on the south by the Bay of Bengal. The cultivation of jute provides the country with its main economic base and rice is its main food crop; other resources include undeveloped coal, oil, and natural gas deposits. Each year, from June to October, Bangladesh is visited by monsoons that leave over one-third of its arable land flooded. Such routine flooding, augmented by violent cyclones, hampers agricultural productivity in this desperately poor country, and outbreaks of water-borne diseases have combined with food and water shortages to make the life expectancy for the average Bangladeshi only 60 years. Fewer than half of all adult Bangladeshi males can read and write; the country's overpopulation and poverty continue to invite foreign humanitarian aid.

Part of what is historically known as Bengal, the People's Republic of Bangladesh came into being in 1971. During the British colonial period it formed the province of East Bengal. In 1947 the Indian subcontinent was partitioned between India and Pakistan, and predominantly Muslim East Bengal became East Pakistan, one of the five provinces of Pakistan. East Pakistan's physical distance from the other four predominately Hindu provinces1,100 miles across Indian territory emboldened the region's Muslim agitators, and after the 1970 election civil war ensued. The people of Bangladesh belong to a number of ethno-linguistic groups that migrated into the area over the centuries; the largest of these are speakers of the Bengali language.

Ecclesiastically, Bangladesh is divided into six dioceses administered by native bishops. The archdiocese of Dhaka oversees suffragans Chittagong, Dinajpur, Khulna, Mymensingh, and Rajshahi.

Missionary Foundations. The early history of the Catholic Church in Bangladesh is closely linked to Portugese missionary activity in the rest of the Indian sub-continent. Originally the home of Buddhist and Hindu peoples, East Bengal came under Muslim rule in the 13th century. The first missionaries came to the area in 1517, making their headquarters at Hoogly in West Bengal (now India). Meanwhile, a large community of Portugese traders settled in East Bengal in the port city of Chittagong. In 1599 four Jesuit missionaries arrived in Chittagong to minister to this community, one of whom went on to Chandecan, near the present town of Sathkhira in the southwest of the country. There the first church was dedicated Jan. 1, 1600, as the Church of Jesus. The second church, established at Chittagong in 1601, was dedicated to St. John the Baptist.

When the Muslim Moghuls made Dhaka the capital city of Bengal in 1608, that city grew in trade and prominence, along with its Portuguese settlers and other foreign traders. In 1612 Portuguese Augustinian missionaries first introduced Christianity in Dhaka, and in 1628 they built the first church, the Church of the Assumption, at Narinda, the downtown area of Dhaka.

The first Catholic parish in East Bengal, Holy Rosary Church, was established in 1677 at Tejgaon in Dhaka. In 1695 the second parish was set up at Nagari, 20 miles northeast of Dhaka, named after St. Nicholas of Tolentino. The third church at Barisal, dedicated to Our Lady of Guidance, was built in 1764 in the present diocese of Chittagong. Other parishes were established in the 19th and 20th centuries in response to the gradual increase of the Christian population and migration of families from one part of the country to another.

In 1606, when Mylapore (Madras State, India) became a diocese, all the mission centers of undivided Bengal were brought under its jurisdiction. In 1834 Rome created the vicariate apostolic of Bengal under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the propagation of the faith and in 1850 subdivided it into the vicariates apostolic of Western Bengal and Eastern Bengal. Two years later the vicariate of East Bengal, with headquarters at Dhaka, was entrusted to the newly founded Congregation of the Holy Cross. The first Holy Cross missionaries of the Canadian Province arrived in May 1853 and administered the vicarate until 1876, when they were called back to France. The vicariate was administered by Benedictine monks of the Anglo-Belgian province until the missionaries returned in 1889.

Catholic Diocese Established. On Sept. 1, 1886, Pope Leo XIII gave Dhaka the status of a diocese, the first in East Bengal. The new diocese included the territories of the present-day diocese of Chittagong (Bangladesh), Silchar (Assam, India), and Prome (Burma). However it was not until Nov. 12, 1890, that the secretary of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith announced the selection of Augustine Joseph Louage, CSC, as the first bishop of Dhaka; he arrived the following March. In September 1960, Pope John XXIII would name Theotonius Amol Ganguly the first native auxiliary bishop of Dhaka, delighting Bengalis. Ganguly was the archbishop of Dhaka from 1967 to his death in 1977.

On May 25, 1927, the dioceses of Chittagong and Dinajpur were created as new dioceses for better administration. Even after Great Britain relinquished its colonial power over the Indian subcontinent in 1947, Dhaka remained a suffragan of the archdiocese of Calcutta. However, in July 1950, a new ecclesiastical province was created when Dhaka was raised to an archdiocese and the dioceses of Chittagong and Dinajpur became its suffragans. On Jan. 3, 1952, Khulna Diocese (until 1956 called Jessore Diocese) became the fourth diocese in East Pakistan. Although the new diocese of Chittagong was initially entrusted to the Holy Cross missionaries, in 1952 the portion of the diocese in the Indian territory of Assam was detached to form the separate diocese of Silchar in India.

Due to massive migrations and social unrest between Muslims and Hindus following the partition of the Indian subcontinent, a major Church restructuring was eventually required. The present dioceses of Domka and Raigonj, as well as part of Jalpaiguri, were detached from the diocese of Dinajpur to join the Indian dioceses. Khulna Diocese was given to the St. Francis Xavier Foreign Mission Society, popularly known as the Xaverian Fathers.

The Church after Independence. On Dec. 16, 1971, after a nine-month war of independence in Pakistan, western Pakistan and eastern Pakistan were separated; East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh. In 1988 Islam was declared the state religion, although freedom of religion was granted by the new constitution. Dhaka became the metropolitan see of this new country and grew in importance and greater responsibility. The ancient political capital also became the spiritual capital of Catholic Bangladesh.

On May 15, 1987, a year after visiting Bangladesh, Pope John Paul II created the diocese of Mymensingh and named Francis Anthony Gomes as the first bishop. And on May 21, 1990, the diocese of Rajshahi was canonically created, incorporating into its territory the southern portion of the greater diocese of Dinajpur. Patrick D'Rozario, CSC, was appointed as the first bishop of the new diocese.

In 1975, as a consequence of independence, a national major seminary was formally established in Dhaka to train candidates for priesthood as well as for the formation of native sisters, brothers, and laypersons. The Dhaka seminary resulted in an increase in the number of local priests, their numbers outstripping those of foreign priests by the early 1990s.

The Church Moves into the 21st Century. The majority of Bangladeshi Christians, a small fraction of the total population, were traditionally members of the Lushai tribe. Of these Christians, half were members of one of the country's 76 Catholic parishes in 2000. The Church continued to combat Bangladesh' high illiteracy rates through operation of two colleges, over 40 high schools, 190 primary schools and coaching centers, and four technical schools throughout the country. In addition, the Church provided much-needed humanitarian aid through its hospitals and dispensaries, leprosaria, orphanages, and homes for abandoned and disabled children and the destitute. In addition, Catholic-run Caritas Bangladesh gained international prominence for its involvement in human development issues, and Catholic organizations continued to be at the forefront in responding to the region's continuing struggle against natural disasters, such as the severe flooding that occurred in 1998.

By 2000 Bangladesh was cited as the most densely populated country in the world. Stresses caused by this extreme overpopulation, as well as by famine and continuing religious and ethnic differences flared in 1998, as Muslim extremists took credit for several attacks on both Catholic and Protestant churches and schools in Dhaka. In an effort to mitigate such actions, Bangladeshi bishops encouraged ecumenical programs and social outreach through all the country's parishes.

Bibliography: j. d'costa, History of the Catholic Church in Bangladesh, v. 1 (Dhaka 1988). s. d. rozario, The Catholic Directory of Bangladesh (Dhaka 1992). j. j. a. campose, History of the Portuguese in Bengal (Calcutta 1919).

[s. d. rozario/eds.]