DHAKA, Bangladesh — Ethnic indigenous Catholics, joined by priests, women religious, Muslims and Buddhists, staged a protest rally and submitted a memorandum to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seeking to have land returned that allegedly was appropriated by a Buddhist monk.

About 200 people, mostly Catholics from ethnic Tripura and Marma communities, gathered in front of the Press Club in the Bandarban district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts July 31, ucanews.com reported.

The group also submitted a memorandum through the district’s chief government officer to seek Hasina’s intervention in returning the land in the southeastern part of the country.

Protesters have demanded the return of 98 acres, including 2.3 acres they said is owned by the local Catholic Church.

Father Jerome Rozario, secretary of the Land Commission in the Archdiocese of Chattogram, maintained that a local Buddhist monk, U Cha Hla Bhante, had forcibly grabbed the land in 2014 and that most of the victims were poor ethnic Christians.

“We have asked for support from government officials, taken legal action and held press conferences, but Bhante is very powerful, so nothing is working, Rozario told ucanews.com. “So, now we are appealing the (prime minister) to pay attention to our suffering.”

A private Catholic person filed a lawsuit seeking to reclaim the land in 2014 and the court ruled in favor of the Church. However, the decision was overturned after the monk filed a review petition. The Church subsequently filed an appeal against the verdict, which is pending at the court.

Dilip Barua, a local Buddhist politician and social activist, said that Bhante’s muscle-flexing and land-grabbing spree had tarnished the image of the local Buddhist community.

“For years, Buddhists have fought to get their land back from Bengali Muslim settlers; now, ironically, a Buddhist cleric has become an oppressor due to his greed for land, money and power. This is a blow to a long-held harmonious relationship among various faith groups on the hills,” Barua told ucanews.com.

U Cha Hla Bhante brushed aside the land-grabbing allegation against him as “false and fabricated.”

“I didn’t grab any land by force. All the land I own was legally purchased,” he said. “An interested party is spreading false and fabricated propaganda against me for its personal interests. If anyone with valid legal documents lays a claim on my land, I will immediately return it without hesitation.”

The Chittagong Hill Tracts, comprising the hilly forested districts of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari, is Bangladesh’s only mountainous region, bordered by India and Myanmar. The region is home to dozens of ethnic indigenous groups, most of them Buddhists but with some Christians.

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