“I was living in rented accommodation in a house belonging to Muslims in which I was not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist.”
Bishop Bejoy N. D’Cruze of the diocese of Sylhet, in the north of Bangladesh, is pursuing his mission among the poor tea plantation workers and tribal groups, in a Muslim country
ACN: Bishop Bejoy is small of stature but has a huge heart. His smile never fades, not even when he is telling about the difficult situations he faces in his life and mission. He recently visited the Spanish national office of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and shared his experiences of the first few years of his episcopate in Sylhet, a diocese founded just seven years ago in the north of Bangladesh. This is an overwhelmingly Muslim country with Hindu and Buddhist minorities. Christians make up less than 1% of the population. His diocese lies in an area of great poverty, dominated by vast tea plantations, and where the majority of the population live on less than one euro a day.
What is life like at present in the diocese of Sylhet?
Sylhet is a new diocese, established only in 2011, and I am its first bishop. When we were visited by Veronique Vogel, ACN’s project section head for Bangladesh, I did not even have a house of my own. I was renting a room in a house belonging to Muslims, where I was not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. Nor was I permitted to hold any religious meetings. I was allowed only to say my own private prayers. But in fact I did celebrate the Eucharist secretly, sometimes in the company of my priests.
So then, you started without even having a fitting place where you could celebrate Mass?
In starting my new mission as Bishop of Sylhet, I became a person without land, without a home and without a car. For my first two years as bishop I had to use public transport – but the problem is that in Bangladesh you have to wait a very long time for the bus or the train. They are always late. And so I wasted a lot of time. Now I am trying to complete various building projects, even though land is very expensive in Bangladesh. There are over 160 million people living there in a relatively small country. I still don’t have a cathedral, nor even a pastoral centre.
What are the main things the Church needs in Sylhet?
The principal need we have, apart from caring for the poor, is to be able to have a church in the town where I live, so that people can see that there is a visible Christian presence. There are around 300,000 Muslims in this city and around 1500 Christians. Thanks to the support of ACN and other people, we will soon be able to inaugurate the first ever church in this city. This church will also be used for meetings and gatherings of people, and by children for catechesis. It is both a church and a multifunctional hall. In Sylhet we have six different Protestant communities, and ever since I’ve been here we have had very good relations with them and they accept me as if I were their bishop too. We have many ecumenical encounters. And of course this church will also have a multipurpose hall, because the rest of the Protestant communities don’t have any place to gather.
How was it seen by the Muslim majority that you were planning to build a church?
Where the Muslims are the majority, they don’t want people of other religions. In Bangladesh there is a constant battle against the minorities – the Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. The Church represents a hope for the minorities, because it always stands up for their rights. And besides, there is also discrimination in the workplace, in the infrastructure. Because in many cities Christians face difficulties in being able to build. Yet despite everything, Bangladesh is a respectful Muslim country. There is less radicalism, and we, despite being such a small community, have an important influence in the field of education and healthcare. So far this new church has not caused too much annoyance among the people, even though some of the most radical elements have demonstrated against it.
In recent years there have been a number of attacks against religious minorities in Bangladesh by radical Islamists; some have even been claimed by the Islamic State. Is there an increase in radicalism in Bangladesh?
We have seen a small growth in Islamic fundamentalism. Small but powerful. In 2015 on 20th November, a doctor who was also a PIME missionary was beaten up by a group of fundamentalists. He was seriously injured and is still recovering in a hospital in Italy. Two or three Christians have also been murdered, and a church was attacked. I do not think it is too serious, however. As for me, personally, on 23 December 2015, just before Christmas, I received a “charming” letter from these fundamentalists in which they said, “Be prepared, Bishop, because we’re going to kill you.” But then nothing happened to me, I think it must have been a mistake (he tells us, laughing).
What impact on society and on the Church in Bangladesh did the visit by Pope Francis have at the beginning of last December?
Within my diocese and in Bangladesh generally, ever since the papal visit, more and more people are coming to our gatherings, and we are enjoying good interreligious relations. I’m very happy about this and also for the help we continue to receive. Many thanks to ACN for working so well on our behalf. We feel very grateful to you.
The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been working together with the local Church in Sylhet since the founding of the diocese. Currently ACN is supporting a number of different projects for spiritual formation and human development, together with the pastoral, educational and justice and peace commissions. In 2016 ACN gave over 560,000 Euros in aid for projects in Bangladesh.