More and more people in Bangladesh are moving out of their remote villages and into the towns in search of work. Many bring their families with them, hoping for a better life. However, the majority end up sliding into still greater poverty, many of them reduced to camping out beneath large trees or on building sites, since they cannot even find a roof over their heads. Needless to say, their plight is even worse in the rainy season and in the winter.
Typical of this situation is the city of Rajshahi, the fourth largest city in Bangladesh, which lies in the west of the country, not far from the Indian frontier. Many families have come here seeking a better life. Sometimes they succeed in finding menial employment, as day labourers or road sweepers. The Catholic Church here is doing its best to help some of these rural migrants by providing simple accommodation and other forms of aid.
The Church is particularly active in Kolimnagar, formerly a village a little way outside Rajshahi. But as the city has continued to spread, it has now effectively become a suburb. And although, overall, Christians only make up a tiny minority in the population of Bangladesh, which is over 80% Muslim, the village of Kolimnagar is made up exclusively of Christians. There is a small chapel here and a convent of religious sisters, who run a primary school for the children. More and more parents are coming to understand that their children will only have a chance of a better life if they attend school and gain an education. In addition to the school, the sisters have set up a needlework centre in order to help some of the poorer women to make a living for themselves in this way.
Today more and more Catholics are moving into this suburb of the town, since they are finding a lively parish life there and immediately feel at home. But now the chapel in Kolimnagar has become far too small for this growing community and especially on Sundays and feast days there is simply not enough room inside the church for all the congregation. And yet these people have a deep sense of piety and want to play an active part in the life of the Church.
The priests who serve the parish in Kolimnagar and celebrate Holy Mass there do not live locally, but have to travel out on Sundays through the far-flung urban sprawl of Rajshahi in order to reach the church there. Since they also have to celebrate Holy Mass in several other places, it is impossible for them to celebrate additional Masses in Kolimnagar in order to give people the opportunity of coming to Mass at different times.
Meanwhile, they have managed to create an open air space and erected a temporary roof over it. But not long ago this already makeshift solution was damaged by a tropical storm. The only permanent solution, therefore, is to build a larger church. But of course the ordinary Catholic faithful, who are struggling even to feed their own families, are too poor to raise the necessary funds to achieve this.
And so Father Paul Gomes of the cathedral parish of the Good Shepherd, to which Kolimnagar belongs, has turned to ACN with a request for help. He writes: “Since we are a minority in the country, the church would also be a visible sign of the Christian presence and a means of evangelisation. Our chapel will be a centre of hope, consolation and new strength for these helpless and marginalised people.”
Pope Francis has recently visited the small Catholic community in Bangladesh, which represents less than one percent of the population. The motto of the papal visit was “harmony and peace” – a vitally important subject in a country where life is by no means easy for the Christian minority.
The new church in Kolimnagar will be used not only for Holy Mass and other liturgical celebrations, but also for catechetical and other pastoral programmes and gatherings aimed at helping the people to deepen their faith and live a truly Christian life.