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     Volume 5 Issue 125 | December 22, 2006 |

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Cover Story

A Low-key Christmas Celebration

Aasha Mehreen Amin and Elita Karim

The new Roman Catholic Church in Tejgaon attracts many Christians during major religious festivals

In a country predominantly Muslim, the beliefs and customs of minorities are often confined to token observance of festivals that have long lost their previous splendour and prominence. Bangladeshi Christians, about to celebrate their most important religious festival, Christmas, make up a small percentage of the population. While the Christian community's legacy in this country is an integral part of our country's history, it is a community that has largely remained in the background due to widespread integration with Bangladeshi culture, an exodus of Anglo-Indian Christians and foreign missionaries and because of the reality of being a minority. Today the number of Christians (all denominations included) may at best be around four and a half lakhs all over the country. Star Weekend Magazine talks to a few members of this community to get a glimpse of the significant contributions it has made in the areas of education, humanitarian work and architectural heritage.

The Holy Rosary Church is still a place of spiritual refuge for the faithful

Schools and colleges set up by Christian missionaries have always enjoyed the enviable reputation for being the best in the country providing the highest quality of education. Institutions such as St. Gregory's School, Holy Cross School and College, St. Josephs School, Notre Dame College, St Francis Xavier's College were once the most coveted places of learning that provided an all-rounded education. The contribution of the mostly American Fathers and Sisters of the Christian churches, to education in this country, is invaluable. But another role of the missionaries foreign and Bangali, that we often overlook while reminiscing the past, is the one they played during our liberation struggle. There were many missionaries working all over the country at the time and risked their lives to give shelter or medical Care to the millions of refugees fleeing from death and destruction.

Father James Banas, an English teacher of Notre Dame College and now also Assistant to the Principal there, has been in this country for the last 47 years. His memories of 1971 are evidently quite vivid as he recalls snippets of incidents during that momentous time in our history: “There were some people from a village in Noakhali that had been completely burned to the ground and I was asked to take some cash as relief.” Father Banas along with a teacher went to the area and made sure that the distribution was fast and reached the right people.

Reverend B. N. Mandol, a priest at the Dhaka Baptist Church at Sadarghat

Kaliganj was an area that had been attacked several times by the Pakistani army and more than 10,000 people in those villages were forced to take shelter in the nearby Nagori Church near Pubail. While the missionaries distributed relief they were a little concerned as the pastor itself was now vulnerable to attack if the church kept the refugees indefinitely. According to Banas, Father Goedart, the pastor of the church at one of the weekly prayers said 'If we do not take these people into our homes then we cannot call ourselves Christians.' It was this comment that prompted the Christians in the village to open their homes to the refugees and give them shelter for the next six to seven months. Father Banas also recounts the more tragic incidents during the war such as when Father Evans, an American missionary who had been serving in a village in Nobabganj, was returning to the village after being in hiding for some time, when soldiers beat him with rifle butts, killed him and threw his body into the river. In a village in Khulna, Father Banas continues, some people had been given shelter in a church. The missionaries managed to hide most of them in the upper story of the church but the soldiers came and machine-gunned the ground floor area, killing a few people and injuring others.

Father Banas has many such war stories to tell but perhaps the most moving one is about Mother Teresa who was in Bangladesh in 1971. “It was the 19th or 20th of December,” recounts Banas, “there was a knock at the door at nine o'clock in the evening. Mother Teresa, who was staying with the principal of Holy Cross School, asked us to take a few students to Rayerbazar and bury the intellectuals who had been brutally killed by the army.

“Nobody had thought of it. There were no students so it was three of us priests and two workers, we took our kodals the next day and started burying them,” Father Banas recalls noticing that most of the bodies were partially buried. He gathered from a man who was in the area that some 'old woman' had come to the place and shortly after she had left, some soldiers had come in to cover the bodies. Obviously it had been Mother Teresa who had gone back and told the soldiers to bury the bodies that had been left to decompose out in the open.

A few centuries old Christian cemetery located in the Holy Rosary church

Father Banas, who is well known for his efforts to educate and empower the underprivileged, says that even from a very young age he knew he was destined to help the needy through spiritual along with educational and economic uplift. “I found I was fulfilled here,” says Father Banas, “especially after independence when we started a literacy school for slum kids, then later a trade school, credit union and then a boys' home. This has given a lot of satisfaction and meaning to my life.” Banas, now in his early seventies, saying that Bangladesh is his 'first and last assignment'.

It is believed that the first Catholic Missionaries came to Bengal in 1517.The Augustinian Missionaries came to Bengal in 1612 and spreading the faith quickly built churches in various parts of the country. The Catholic Church presently has a very strong footing in the dioceses of Dhaka, Chittagong and Mymensingh. It is no surprise therefore that Catholics numbering roughly around 300,000 are the majority Christians.

Culturally, however, the Christian community has undergone some change. With many Christians of Anglo-Indian descent leaving the country for greener pastures, most Bangladeshi Christians are Bangali and share a common culture with their non-Christian compatriots. Christian converts from indigenous communities have also retained their culture while being spiritually connected to the Church.

Michael D'aranjo, a reception supervisor of Transcom Ltd who has been with the company for the last 27 years, has lived in

Michael D'aranjo remembers the excitement of Christmas celebrated in Old Dhaka in the past

Rokanpur in Old Dhaka for most of his life, says that many of the old traditions surrounding Christmas, have disappeared and the grand celebrations of the past have been reduced to a simple observance with little glitter or festivity. “When I was a young boy this was the most fun time,” recalls Michael, now in his early fifties, “ St. Gregory's where I went to, especially, had long drawn out programmes such as Christmas parties, sports carnivals, drama and carol singing soirees. Now Christmas is celebrated only between families.” Michael recalls the excitement of his younger days living in Old Dhaka where Christmas was a big event. “ We didn't have ovens in our homes so we used to go to the local bakery to get our Christmas cake or Christmas pudding baked.” The most famous and one of the oldest of these bakeries was The Prince of Wales Bakery next to St. Gregory's School, the owner of which was a Muslim named Badruddin Ahmed who had once been a carpenter of the bakery. The British owners before leaving, had sold the bakery at 200 taka to Badruddin, who passed the establishment to his progeny. “They used to have big portraits of the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh,” says Michael, “ and they were known for their elaborate wedding cakes, Easter eggs and 'hot cross buns' for Good Friday.” The bakery still exists though now as a mere confectionary with none of the flamboyant arrangements of the past.

A time for quiet prayer and introspection inside the ancient church in Tejgaon

Michael is of Portuguese descent and knows a bit of history regarding his ancestors. Around 1577, Portuguese traders were given permission to settle and build churches in Bengal and later the right to marry locals and stay on permanently. This explains the number of Catholics with Portuguese surnames. A Catholic, Michael and his family - his wife Rosie and five grown up children - have never felt discriminated against for having a faith different from the majority population. Most of his friends, he says, from his childhood and now, are Muslim.

Leonard Swapan Gomez is a high school teacher of English and Biology and will soon become a homeopathic doctor. “There are at least four lakh Christians in Bangladesh,” he says. “A small number, which you can literally count on your fingers.” According to him Roman Catholics outnumber any of the other sects of the Christian community, namely, Anglicans, Baptists, Protestants or Armenians. Standing in front of the Roman Catholic Church in Tejgaon, he says that this church was going to be demolished, when Ziaur Rahman, the then president put a stop to it. The Holy Rosary Church, a parish developed by the Holy Cross Fathers and Sisters is an old building in Tejgaon.

Most Bangladeshi Christians follow Bangali customs and traditions while following their own religion

The inscription on the pinnacle of the Church shows a date in Arabic numerals- 1677- built by the Augustinian Fathers, but in fact the real date of the Church's foundation is unknown. Many say that it was built in the 16th century.

In a country dominated by Muslims, the minorities have often come under verbal, emotional and even physical attacks. At times, the ones belonging to a religion other than Islam are made to feel alienated in their own country. “What saddens me the most is the fact that politics is mixed with religion in the state level,” says Leonard Swapan Gomez. He adds that this makes it difficult for people to choose a leader. “Centuries ago, Khalipha Omar used to rule over a land filled with people belonging to different religions,” he says. “Omar would disguise himself and stroll out at night to see how his people were doing in reality. The fact that many were not Muslims did not matter to him in the least. The welfare of his people was his priority.”

For Ramond Rozario, a businessman, every year Christmas is a very lively event at home, like any other Christian family in Bangladesh. “We have friends, neighbours and family members coming together on the day,” he says. “We pray and eat together. It also gives us a chance to catch up on the little things that we seem to miss in our everyday lives.”

St. Gregory's School is over 100 years old and has produced many eminent personalities

Rozario does not feel alienated in any way in this country, working along with all the other people. However, he thinks that the attacks usually fall upon the Garo Christians and the ones living on the Hill Tracts rather than the ones in the cities.

Indigenous communities, in general, are the most deprived in the country. Many indigenous people who converted to Christianity, continue to live in abject conditions and have very little access to basic rights such as education and health care. This has forced them to come to the cities in search of jobs. Most of the indigenous Christians take up jobs as beauty parlour assistants, security guards, cooks or domestic help.

John Drong, a member of the Garo Christian community in Mymensingh, works as a cook in Dhaka. He came to Dhaka seeking employment opportunities after his SSC exams. “Getting an education is a luxury in my community,” he says. “Most drop out of school early to help out financially in the family. Because of this lack of education and proper exposure to how things work outside, many in our community have been tricked out of their land and property by the Bangali people.” John says that there have been similar incidents that have occurred in his extended family as well.

Brother Robi Purification, the Headmaster of St. Gregory's School

Most of the Garo Christian families had converted to the Christian faith from Buddhism. “They mainly hail from Tangail and other areas,” John explains. “But Garo families in Mymensingh have been Christian for a long time.”

Chandra Corraya from Mohammedpur is a schoolteacher and teaches English and math at the primary level. Incidentally, she is the only Christian in her school and also in her locality. “I have never felt alienated in any way whatsoever,” she says. “My colleagues and my neighbours give me the respect that I deserve and vice versa.” Christmas to her and her family is not only a festive occasion, where her extended family members and friends join her, but are also which she celebrates with her Muslim neighbours. “I take the extra time to decorate my Christmas tree and make pitha of many kinds,” she says. “Everyone in the locality looks forward to it and I also get a lot of help from my neighbours preparing for Christmas.”

A mother of three sons, she says that she could have just gone off to the US or Canada with her family, which would probably be more appropriate in terms of observing the religious rituals. “But this is my country,” she says. “And I would have to return to it one day or the other. I cannot think of living anywhere with my family but in Bangladesh.”

Christmas celebrations these days are not as grand as before and festivities have been reduced to small-scale melas (fairs)

Shiuli, a housewife and mother of two daughters and one son, wishes that she and her family could enjoy more than just the traditional one day of Christmas holiday. “Though many of the government-run schools have more than one day, not all work places do,” she says. “We go to our village home during Christmas and one day is never enough to meet with family members and friends.”

Roseline Perris has been working in the Human Resource Department at Farzana Shakil's in Dhanmondi for the last three years. Mother of two children, she along with her kids and husband who is a businessman has been living in Kafrul for more than two decades. With a Roman Catholic Church nearby, the area has at least 200 Christian families. For years now, Roseline has been looking after her family and taking care of her kids. Her daughter has now finished high school and is an acclaimed professional classical dancer and her son recently graduated from a private university and currently works in an advertising firm. Over the years, Roseline met a lot of people from different backgrounds and faiths, while accompanying her young daughter at dance rehearsals and in many different parts of the country. However, she has hardly ever felt alienated. In fact, it is a tradition in Kafrul to celebrate the occasions of Christmas, Eid and other religious festivals together with everyone.

John Drong, a Garo Christian says that lack of education has been a major set back for his community

Her son Proshun Perris says that in areas like Kafrul and other areas where families and friends happen to be closely-knit, communal bashing of any kind is rare. However, in many areas like Tejkuni Para, Farmgate and many others, there have been cases where land and property belonging to Christian families living abroad were taken away illegally. In fact, almost the entire area around Tejgaon right up to Indira Road was owned by Christians.

The bomb that blasted in a church a few years ago in Faridpur still makes many members of the Christian community shiver with fear. According to Leonard Swapan Gomez, security measures are tighter now in and around churches, “But what is the point if I cannot pray in a free state of mind?” he asks.

“I don't really feel threatened because it's my country,” says Father Horatio Rozario, Assistant Vice Principal of Notre Dame College who also teaches philosophy. “But it feels uncomfortable when we see all the security around the churches when we go for the Christmas or Easter congregation, although we know we need it.”

The Prince of Wales Bakery next to St. Gregory's School was once famous for its confectionary specially made for Christian festivals

Earlier, every Christmas Eve, Christians would gather for the midnight mass in the different churches located in different parts of the country. After the bomb attacks and scares, threats the mass does not go beyond 12 am. “In fact,” says Gomez, “This year it has been announced that the midnight mass will commence at 8 and finish off by 10 pm,” he says.

Churches during Christmas Eve always have high security with RAB officials and the police, a sign that the threat of terrorist attacks is always a possibility, especially against non-Muslims and secular festivities. “The spirit is lost when everyone is checked with a metal detector before entering the church, just so one can pray in peace,” says Gomez.



Photos: Zahedul I. Khan



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