Buddhist members of an armed rebel group and their sympathizers are holding three tribal Christians captive in a pagoda in southeastern Bangladesh after severely beating them in an attempt to force them to return to Buddhism, Christian sources said.
Held captive since April 16 are Pastor Shushil Jibon Talukder, 55; Bimol Kanti Chakma, 50; and Laksmi Bilas Chakma, 40, of Maddha Lemuchari Baptist Church in Lemuchari village, in Mohalchari sub-district of the mountainous Khagrachari district, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of Dhaka. They are to be kept in the pagoda for 15 to 20 days as punishment for having left the Buddhist religion, the sources said.
Local Buddhists are considered powerful as they have ties with the United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF), an armed group in the hill districts.
After taking the Christians captive on April 16, the sources said, the next day the armed Buddhist extremists forced other Christians of Maddha Lemuchari Baptist Church to demolish their church building by their own hands. The extremists first seized all blankets, Bibles and song books from the church building.
The sources said two UPDF members went to Pastor Talukder’s house at 7 a.m. on April 16, telling him to go to a Buddhist community leader’s house in a nearby village. The Buddhist leader also ordered all members of the Baptist church to come to his house, and about 15 Christians did so.
After a brief dispute, the Buddhists chose the pastor and the two other Christians and began beating them, seriously injuring the pastor. They then took them to a nearby pagoda for Buddhist baptism, shaving their heads and dressing them in saffron robes as part of a conversion ritual.
The sources said Pastor Talukder was bludgeoned nearly to death.
“The pastor was beaten so seriously that he could not walk to the nearby pagoda,” said one source. “Buddhist people took him on a wooden stretcher, which is used for carrying a dead body for burial or cremation.”
Pastor Talukder was treated in the pagoda with intravenous, hypodermic injections that saved his life, the source said.
The Buddhist extremists were said to be forcing other Christians to undergo Buddhist baptism in the pagoda and to embrace Buddhism.
A source in Khagrachari district told Compass that local UPDF Buddhists had been mounting pressure on the Christians since their church began in the area in early 2007.
“They gave vent to their anger on Christians in a violent outburst by beating the pastor and two others after failing several attempts in the past to stop their evangelical activities,” the source said. “They took them into a pagoda to convert them forcibly to Buddhism.”
In June the Buddhists had threatened to harm Pastor Talukder if he did not give up his Christian faith. The pastor escaped and hid in different churches for two months. Later he came back in the area and began his pastoral and evangelical activities anew.
“They also made threats and gave ultimatums to three or four other churches in the locality to try to force them to come back to Buddhism,” the source said.
Regional Sub-district Chairman Sona Ratan Chakma told Compass that the “three renegade Buddhists” are being kept in the pagoda for religious indoctrination.
“They became Christian, and they were breaking the rules and customs of the Buddhist society, so elders of the society were angry with them,” Chakma said. “That is why they were sent to a pagoda for 15 to 20 days for their spiritual enlightenment, so that they can come back to their previous place [Buddhism].”
Chakma said the Christians have not been tortured but given punishment proportionate to the gravity of their “social deviation.”
“They were punished so that they can come to their senses,” he said.
The Rev. Leor P. Sarkar, general secretary of Bangladesh Baptist Church Fellowship, told Compass that the UPDF’s ultimatum was of grave concern.
“This armed group issued an ultimatum that by April 30 all Christians should come back to Buddhism, otherwise all of them will face the same consequences,” said Sarkar.
Christians are virtually in a state of siege by the UPDF, he said. None of them go to church buildings on the traditional worship days of Friday or Sunday, instead worshipping in their own houses.
Sarkar added that the tribal Christians do not have any political conflict with the UPDF.
“They simply persecute them for their faith in Christ,” he said. “Their only demand to us is to go back to Buddhism.”
The UPDF’s order to give up their faith is a matter of life and death, Sarkar said.
“A ripple of unknown fear gripped the entire Christian community there,” he said. “Everybody took fright from that menacing cruelty. The everyday life of Christians is hampered, beset with threats, hatred and ostracism. So it is a social catastrophe.”
The church leader urgently appealed to local government officials to come to the aid of the kidnapped Christians.
The UPDF is one of two main tribal organizations in the hill districts, the other being the United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, or PCJSS). The PCJSS, formed in 1973, had fought for autonomy in the region for 25 years, leaving nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed. After signing a peace accord in 1997 with the Bangladesh government, the PCJSS laid down arms.
But the UPDF, a political party founded in 1998 based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, has strong and serious reservations against the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord signed 1997. Claiming that the agreement failed to address fundamental demands of the indigenous Jumma people, the UPDF has pledged to fight for their full autonomy.
Last year the PCJSS demanded that the government ban the UPDF for their terrorist activities in the hill districts.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts region comprises three districts: Bandarban, Khagrachuri and Rangamati. The region is surrounded by the Indian states of Tripura on the north and Mizoram on the east, Myanmar on the south and east.
Compass Direct News