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Country in the Spotlight: Bangladesh

Wednesday, April 18, 2001 | Tag Cloud

April 18, 2001

Deadly cyclones are a way of life for the people of Bangladesh, a Muslim nation east of India. One of the worst natural disasters of the 20th Century was the 1970 cyclone that pounded the low-lying country, killing an estimated 500,000 people. Other storms since then have claimed another 200,000 lives.

These vicious tempests originate over the Bay of Bengal, south of Bangladesh--the Bengali word for Bengal nation--during the spring and fall. They spawn flooding, tornadoes, and surging waves.

Bangladeshis have had much more than the weather to contend with over the years. Prior to independence in 1971, when East Pakistan became the People's Republic of Bangladesh, the land had been a province of Pakistan for 24 years, even though a thousand miles of Indian territory separated the two. Civil war in the province led to thousands of deaths with 10,000,000 refugees crossing the border into the Indian state of West Bengal. It was not until military intervention by India that Pakistani troops surrendered, assuring independence for Bangladesh.

From 1756 to 1947, the entire region--Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India--was comprised of provinces of the British Empire. As independence inevitably drew closer following World War Two, ethnic clashes between Muslims and Hindus led Great Britain to partition the land. The province of Punjab was split, with the western Muslim portion becoming Pakistan and the Hindu remainder joining India. Likewise in the east, Bengal was split between East Pakistan and India.

Unlike West Pakistan, only about half of East Pakistan's Hindus left for India at the time of independence. At about 16 percent of the population, those remaining had a moderating influence on the political and religious direction East Pakistan took. To this day, Bangladesh is 12 percent Hindu, in contrast to Pakistan being only slightly more than one percent Hindu.

Ethnically, the vast majority of Bangladesh's 129 million people (making it one of the world's 10 most populated countries) are Bengali. In terms of religion, 85.8 percent are Muslim and 12 percent Hindu. There are an estimated 536,000 (less than one-half of one percent) independent Christians. Another 160,000 belong to Protestant denominations, while 350,000 are labeled as crypto, or secret Christians.

The world's largest Jamaat or "messianic mosque" movement is in Bangladesh. These are Christians who have retained the Islamic form of worship, culture, and family life.

There is some persecution of Christians in Bangladesh, mostly at the village level. "(A government official) declared that if anybody converts anyone to Christianity, (he) should be handed over to the police," one native missionary reports. "Local pressure and torture is on the rise every day."

Other religions include Buddhism (0.6 percent), animists (0.6), and Sikhs (less than one-tenth of one percent).

There are 22 unreached people groups in Bangladesh. They include the Bengalis (112,000,000 people with one-tenth of one percent being Christian) and the Hindi (400,000 with no reported Christians).

Nearly 60 percent of Bangladeshis are under the age of 25 with 45 million under 15. Two-thirds of the children under five are underweight. Less than half the population has access to health care services.

Most of the people live in extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, 78 percent of Bangladeshis were classified as being in "absolute poverty" as of the early 1990s.

Complicating lives for women in Bangladesh is Purdah--the Muslim belief that it is the "moral obligation" of women to live in seclusion and submission to men. This keeps many women out of the workforce, thus increasing the poverty in which they live.

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