Poverty, Natural Disasters and the Church in Bangladesh

Poverty and natural disasters are among the biggest problems facing the Church in Bangladesh, according to a leading bishop.

Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, Bishop Bejoy D’Cruze of Khulna said that natural disasters have plunged people deeper into poverty. Highlighting an increase in natural disasters, Bishop D’Cruze said, “I am always afraid of cyclones, hurricanes, and flooding.”

The Diocese of Khulna, in the south of the country, has suffered severely from cyclones and flooding, as it forms part of the Ganges Delta, close to the Bay of Bengal. The government ensures new houses are constructed well above ground level but many older structures are susceptible to damage.

Bishop D’Cruze said, “Houses are in a poor condition — they are not very good at all — all of a sudden they can be destroyed.” He also commented, “The situation is getting worse because of the untimely floods and destruction of the environment.”

Cyclone Alia in May claimed 130 lives. The total number of deaths from natural disasters this year is expected to be much higher. The figure is not thought to be as high as that following Cyclone Sidr in 2007, a category four hurricane. Sidr left 3,243 dead and 34,500 were injured, according to official figures from the country’s Ministry of Food and Disaster Management.

Reflecting on the numbers made homeless, the bishop said, “After Cyclone Sidr we needed many more houses — and the situation is becoming worse.” He added that the Church is doing a lot of work for those affected by environmental disaster, regardless of caste and creed, and he praised the support given by charities in the country.

Bangladesh is top of the 2009 Global Climate Risk Index, a list of 170 countries most vulnerable to climate change put together by Germanwatch, an international NGO that works on environment and development issues. According to some climate change investigators, up to 15 percent of Bangladesh could be lost if sea levels rise by one meter. Environment groups warn that it would cause the displacement of 13 million people and cut into the crucial rice crop.

Bishop D’Cruze went on to say that Christians in Bangladesh are fervent.

He said, “The faith of the people is strong, 60-80 per cent attend Sunday Mass,” even though Sunday is a working day in the country. He continued, saying, “In my diocese from the Riche community [an ethnic group] we are seeing 3-400 adult baptisms every year” – mostly from lower caste Hindus who admire the Church’s strong ethos of rights and equality.

The bishop stressed how the Church is respected for its work in education and medicine, which is helping many of the poorest families. Bishop D’Cruze said, “We can give witness through this service – as we are less than one per cent nationally.” In his diocese there are only 31,500 Catholics in a population of 18 million Hindus and Muslims.

“We want to train teachers well, and train them to have values. We started a Catholic teacher training college in Dhaka [the Bangladesh capital] – providing its graduates with a teaching certificate,” the bishop continued. This year the college is training about 40 teachers.

Yet, out of the 50 Catholic schools in Khulna diocese, only five receive any support from the government – “I have to look for money to run the schools,” said the bishop.

The poverty of the people means that they collect less than 20 per cent of running costs from students.

Last year ACN gave more than $399,000 to help the Church in Bangladesh.

Key areas of help include, faith formation for priests, Sisters and the laity, and Church buildings – especially chapels in areas where people are discovering Christianity for the first time.

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