In Bangladesh, growing religious militancy and chronic political violence threaten to undermine the institutions that protect religious freedom and silence the country's voices of religious tolerance and moderation. Islamic militants have been implicated in attacks on politicians, authors who oppose extremist interpretations of Islam, members of religious minorities, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Left unchecked, the trend toward intolerance and violent vigilantism, particularly toward Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians, could have an increasingly negative impact on the religious freedom of all Bangladeshis. In response to these growing concerns, the Commission has decided to place Bangladesh on its Watch List.

Although Bangladesh was established as a secular state following independence from Pakistan in 1971, Islam was made the state religion in 1988 under a military regime. The Constitution retains strongly worded guarantees of freedom of religious belief and practice, as well as equal treatment by the government for citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Further, although Bangladesh's Constitution states that "absolute trust and faith in Allah" is to "be the basis for all actions" by the government, this provision is not judicially enforceable. Bangladesh has a representative government, regular changes of power through free elections, a judiciary that sometimes issues rulings against those in authority, a lively press often critical of government policies, and a functioning civil society with active human rights groups and other NGOs.

Despite these democratic practices, rising militancy is threatening the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief for all in Bangladesh. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, at least some of the Bangladeshis serving with the Mujahideen there brought home a jihadist ideology of violent struggle against perceived opponents of Islam. This ideology in turn gave rise to domestic radical groups such as Harakatul-Jihad-Islami/Bangladesh ("Movement of Islamic Holy War"). Aided by the expansion of Islamic schools (madrasas), charities, and other social welfare institutions, some receiving foreign funding, Islamic militants have continued to gain influence. Explicitly Islamic parties were not included in Bangladeshi governments until the current government was elected in October 2001.

Bangladesh's high levels of political violence and instability have also provided opportunities for religious and other extremists to expand their influence. Due to a weak legal system and corrupt law enforcement, gangs employed by politicians engage in criminal activities with relative impunity. Armed groups of Islamic vigilantes and leftist guerrillas terrorize remote rural areas. Politically-motivated bombings, assassinations, and other terrorist acts, often ascribed to Islamic militants, have exacerbated partisan tensions and increased the vulnerability of minority communities. In February 2005, the government announced that police investigations had implicated two Islamic militant groups in a series of bomb attacks on nongovernmental organizations and other civil society targets. Following domestic and international criticism, the government banned the two groups, announced the arrest of one militant leader, and publicly ordered the police to intensify efforts to apprehend another.

The current government, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was elected in October 2001 with the support of two small Islamic parties. Following the October 2001 elections, there were numerous reports of killings, sexual assaults, illegal land-seizures, arson, extortion, and intimidation of religious minority group members. Hindus in particular were the targets of these attacks. Minority group representatives and human rights groups ascribed these attacks to religious extremists or to partisans of the BNP and its Islamic allies. Forced by a court order to investigate election violence against minorities, the government downplayed the issue, asserting that victims were only incidentally members of minority groups or that reported incidents were false or exaggerated. The lack of accountability for reported crimes against minority group members during the last election raises serious concerns about an atmosphere of impunity for such crimes, as well as the possibility of a renewal of violence against Hindus and members of other religious minorities in the next general election.

Although reports of anti-minority violence have dropped off sharply since the 2001 election, Hindus, Christians, and representatives of other minorities continue to express concerns regarding the safety of their coreligionists, citing the growth in Islamic radicalism and occasional instances of violence, including fatalities, in which the victims' religious affiliation appears to have been a factor. Minority group representatives claim that religion plays a role in property and land disputes, alleging discrimination in the resolution of the past expropriations of Hindu property and pointing to the continuing displacement of non-Muslim tribal populations by Bengali Muslims in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and other traditionally tribal areas. Despite constitutional protections, in practice, non-Muslims face societal discrimination and are disadvantaged in access to government jobs and public services.

Islamic extremists in Bangladesh have engaged in a public campaign against the small Ahmadi community, estimated at 100,000 out of a population of 140 million. The campaign has the avowed aim of pressuring the government to declare Ahmadis to be "non-Muslims," as has been done in Pakistan. Ahmadis or "Qadiyanis," most of whom live in Pakistan and India, are viewed as heretical by some Muslims. Although the government of Bangladesh has thus far refused to follow Pakistan's lead on this issue, in January 2004, it bent to militant pressure and banned the publication and distribution of Ahmadi religious literature. Since then, police have seized Ahmadi publications on some occasions. In December 2004, Bangladesh's High Court stayed the government's order of January 2004 banning Ahmadi publications; further legal action is pending.

The anti-Ahmadi agitation has been accompanied by incidents of mob violence, including attempts to occupy Ahmadi places of worship. In Rangpur in northern Bangladesh in April 2004, several Ahmadi homes were destroyed and Ahmadi converts held against their will and pressured to recant. Police protection of Bangladesh's Ahmadi citizens has often been inadequate, and, in some cases, police have reportedly assisted the extremists. In March 2005, in the town of Bogra in northern Bangladesh, police, under pressure from an anti-Ahmadi mob, were photographed affixing to an Ahmadi place of worship a sign reportedly reading "A place of worship of the Qadiyanis ... no Muslim should be deceived into considering it a mosque."

Authors, journalists, and academics expressing opinions deemed by some segments of the population to be offensive to Islam are subject to violent, sometimes fatal, attacks. In February 2004, militants stabbed Dr. Humayun Azad, a prominent scholar whose writings support women's rights and criticize Islamic extremism. Dr. Azad subsequently died from his wounds.

Islamic extremists oppose NGOs that promote improvements in protections for the rights of women. Such organizations were targeted in the bombings that led to the ban, cited above, on two militant groups. Some Muslim clerics, especially in rural areas, have sanctioned vigilante punishments against women for alleged moral transgressions. Rape is reportedly a common form of anti-minority violence. The government often fails to punish the perpetrators of these acts against women, as the law enforcement and the judicial systems, especially at the local level, are vulnerable to corruption, intimidation, and political interference.

During the year, Commission staff met on a number of occasions with human rights monitors, representatives of religious communities, Bangladeshi diplomats, and others to discuss religious freedom in Bangladesh. In April 2004, the Commission, together with Congressman Joseph Crowley, a member of the House Committee on International Relations, held a public hearing at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law at Queens College in Flushing, New York, on "Bangladesh: Protecting the Human Rights of Thought, Conscience, and Religion." The purpose of the hearing was to examine religious freedom conditions for members of the majority Muslim community as well as for members of religious minority communities in Bangladesh, and the implications of those trends for U.S. policy. The Commission notes with concern reported efforts by Bangladeshi security officials and others to intimidate hearing witnesses.


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