Fr. Sergio discusses his missionary life in a country that is home to just 350 thousand Catholics and where religious conflict is always on the brink of exploding. “There is a fragile tolerance”
It is a land that is marked by deep social inequality, where the embers of religious discrimination crackle beneath the ash. Bangladesh is home to 160 million people, 88% of whom are Muslim, 10% Hindu, 1% Buddhist and less that 1% Christian (mostly Catholics). There are 350.000 Catholics in the country. Fr. Sergio Targa who has been a missionary since 1992, directs the national social and catechetical centre in Jessore. This is a “new role that offers the possibility of influencing the Church’s future leaders.” The Saverian missionary tries to serve “in the hope that through the little that he offers, people can avert the presence of Another, the One I am trying to discover in the hidden corners of Rishi history.”
Fr. Sergio, could you give us a snapshot of the religion situation in Bangladesh?
“Bangladesh is a tolerant country but it is subjected to international Islamic fundamentalism. There is a hidden and little known Islamism which rears its ugly intolerant head now and again. At the moment, religious parties like Jamaat and Islam have undergone repression and have seem to have left the public political scene partly because of the centre-left government’s heavy handedness. Indeed, they have formed a network across various parts fo the country, they receive generous funding from abroad and are always on the ready. Clashes intensified prior to January’s political elections, leaving hundreds dead.”
What role does religious sentiment play?
“It is easy for political and financial elites to manipulate the religious sentiment of the masses. In the run up to the elections and the aftermath, many religious minorities, particularly Hindus suffered abuse, oppression and violence from the Muslim majority.”
And what has the Government’s response been?
“The government does not seem capable of guaranteeing security. This causes more and more Hindus to flee Bangladesh and head to nearby India. In 1947, 35% of the country’s population was Hindu, this percentage has now dropped to less than 10%.
What are the main causes of these conflicts?
“Bangladesh desperately craves more land. Its enormous population has to fit into a country that is less than half the size of Italy. Religious conflicts are often a way of snatching land away from minorities, particularly Hindus. Tolerance is always fragile here.”
Bangladesh is known for its poverty, what aspects of this would you like people to know about?
“The great developments of the past 20 years have transformed the country but have also created huge social inequalities. Of course there is more to Bangladesh than just poverty: it has inherited an incredibly rich culture that goes back thousands of years. It is a poor country but also a happy one. A country of poets and singers, colours and life, it is buzzing with life, just like the nature surrounding it.”
What is the human rights situation like there? What can the Church do?
“The human rights situation has deteriorated, particularly over the past year. Political conflict has increased. Violence is expected to escalate after the Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadan. Unfortunately the Catholic Church – possibly because it has such few members here – does not seem to fulfil its prophetic role, preferring to keep a low profile instead of creating potential obstacles for itself were it to become too vocal on political or social issues.”
What are you learning from this experience?
“My main focus is on the Rishi population, a group of outcasts that is mainly concentrated in the part of the country where the Saverians have always worked (the south-east, in the Khulna Division). They are marginalized for being a religious minority (Hindus), and within this minority there is further marginalization. They are in general quite insensitive to any kind of religious issue and make up the truth as needed. They live their lives as if in an eternal present in which the future seems to have no sense and the past is only useful insofar as it can serve the present.”