2015-09-10 17:42:00

Bangladesh as 'Secular nation with a state religion' comes under fire

(Vatican Radio)  Bangladesh's High Court on Monday rejected a writ petition by a Hindu lawyer questioning constitutional acknowledgement of Islam as the state religion in the "secular" country, which has drawn criticism from activists including Christian leaders. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said on Wednesday that “the Constitution of Bangladesh, which enshrines the principle of secularism while at the same time proclaiming Islam as the official State religion gives rise to ambiguities that have a direct impact on human rights in the country, including the protection of religious minorities.”

"The court summarily rejected the petition," Deputy Attorney General Khorshedul Alam told reporters after the two-member bench came up with the ruling on the writ filed by the Supreme Court lawyer.

Advocate Samendra Nath Goswami had filed a petition on August 1, questioning how Islam could still be acknowledged as the state religion despite revival of "secularism" as the state policy under a 2011 amendment to the Constitution.

Goswami himself moved the petition which the bench of Justice Mohammad Emdadul Haque and Justice Muhammad Khurshid Alam Sarkar rejected outright after a brief hearing.

The petitioner had also sought a High Court ruling declaring the concerned articles of the Constitution relating to the "state religion" and "secularism" as "conflicting".

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of deputy attorney general, Murad Reza, who opposed the petition. "The court rejected the petition on the grounds that the constitution ensures equal rights for people of all religions including Hindus, Buddhists and Christians," Reza told reporters in Dhaka.

Bangladesh's original Constitution, framed during the country's founder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's post- independence government, in 1972 declared "secularism" as one of the state principles.

The subsequent government of military ruler-turned politician slain president Ziaur Rahman scrapped secularism as the state policy and his successor ex-army chief HM Ershad, who followed his footsteps, made Islam as the state religion in 1988.

Assuming power with three-fourths majority in 2008 general elections, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League government revived secularism as one of the state principle in 2011, following a Supreme Court ruling in 2009. But it kept the provision of state religion untouched, due to sensitivity of the issue and out of fear of losing votes. Minorities have opposed this decision ever since.

"In a democratic country secularism and having a state religion can't exist side by side. It is contradictory and conflicting," Nirmol Rozario, a Catholic and secretary of the Bangladesh Christian Association said of the Sept 7 ruling. "In a modern democratic country, the state is for all, but religion is an individual matter. So a state religion goes against this spirit," Rozario added.

No democratic government has dared revoke the state religion provision in the charter fearing a political backlash. "The fear of losing an election over this issue is unfounded. Keeping Islam as the state religion never increases the vote for secular parties like the Awami League," he said.

Father Albert Thomas Rozario, a High Court lawyer and secretary of Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission also hit out at the court ruling. "The constitution is like a sacred document, like a Bible to a nation. But it should not deliver mixed messages to people," said Father Rozario. "Declaring secularism and having a state religion are in conflict with each other," he said.

"If the constitution acknowledges all religions and people of all faiths equally, the state religion provision should go. Otherwise, it grants special status to Islam over other religions," the priest said.

Father Rozario added that the government could have influenced the court's decision. "The court ruled in favor of the state religion provision because the government wants to keep it for political reasons. The court should have accepted the petition and showed its neutrality," Father Rozario said.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, who just ended a nine-day official visit to the country, added that: “Secularism in Bangladesh represents a commitment, entrenched in the Constitution, to create and uphold an open and inclusive space for religious diversity, free from fear and discrimination. Such an ‘inclusive’ understanding of secularism requires the State authorities to take concrete action and make long term investment in education, civil society development, minority outreach programmes and other activities.”

The Special Rapporteur acknowledged the Government efforts to improve freedom of religion and belief in the country and noted specific measures taken in favour of religious minorities who feel under pressure. However the UN human rights expert observed worrying trends towards compromising the principle of secularism, possibly with the intention of appeasing religious militants.

The UN expert also noted that some of the measures established to preserve secularism seem to lead to the opposite result and to a shrinking of the very space that secularism – like democracy – is supposed to provide.

“For instance, a number of official statements on the recent murders of online activists were ambiguous. While condemning the threats and acts of violence, Government representatives also admonished individuals expressing critical views on religion, asking them not to go ‘too far’ in their criticisms,” Mr. Bielefeldt said.

While trying to fight the instrumentalization of religions, the Government itself should also refrain from using religion to achieve political goals, said the independent expert. He called upon the State authorities to bring the existing norms and practices in line with everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression as enshrined in the country’s Constitution.

Mr. Bielefeldt visited Bangladesh from 31 August to 9 September 2015. In Dhaka and Chittagong Hill Tracts, he met with various government officials and local authorities. He also held meetings with representatives of religious, belief and diplomatic communities, as well as with academicians, civil society organizations and the UN.

The Special Rapporteur will present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in 2016.

Of Bangladesh's 160 million people, about 90 percent are Muslims, eight percent are Hindus and the rest belong to other faiths including Christianity and Buddhism.

(The New Indian Express, UCANews, UN) 

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