MUMBAI, India – Bangladesh’s Catholic Church is preparing the country to welcome Pope Francis at the end of November.
Bangladesh has a majority Muslim population, and the estimated 350,000 Catholics represent less than 0.2 percent of a total population of 163 million people.
The country is also one of the poorest in the world, and almost a third of the population lives below the poverty line.
The motto for his visit to Bangladesh is “Harmony and Peace.” According to organizers, the motto is a call to harmony among “religions, cultures, peoples, society, history, heritage and traditions” in the country, while peace refers to that experience, “as well as a future aspiration with a vision of integrated human and spiritual development in Bangladesh.”
After the trip was confirmed, Bishop Paul Ponen Kubi of Mymensingh, Bangladesh, told Crux that the “tiny minority” that is the Church in his country lives in communion with the universal Church, and “in harmony and peace with different cultures, religions and society.”
The bishop also said that Francis’s visit will be “witness of our harmony and peace and it will greatly strengthen our faith and give great impetus and encouragement to our country and all peoples.”
The Catholic bishops’ conference has set up ten multi-faith subcommittees to help greet the pope.
Last month, the bishops organized a meeting of “Well-wishers” to the Christian community as part of the preparation for the visit.
The group was made up of around 45 leaders from other faith communities – including Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists – as well as other Christian denominations.
“The Church in Bangladesh is united, cooperates and collaborates with other denominations and faiths, and interfaith gatherings regularly take place in the dioceses of Bangladesh,” said Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, the Archbishop of Dhaka, the country’s capital.
“The Well-wishers of the Christian community are enthusiastic and involved in Pope Francis’s pilgrimage to Bangladesh. They have given suggestions that the digital world and social media [be utilized so that] every person should know about Pope Francis’s visit and follow the pope in Bangladesh,” the cardinal told Crux.
He also said the group was particularly interested in the pope’s planned interfaith meeting with young people.
Dr. Kamal Hossian, one of the authors of the country’s constitution, told Asianews: “The people of Bangladesh will learn the values of the pope. With his visit, [we will] learn to respect each other.”
D’Rozario said the well-wishers “desire that every person listen to the Holy Father as he speaks in Bangladesh: His concern for humanity and the people, his vision of the world, and his prophetic voice on social, economic and political issues.”
One of the issues hanging over the trip is the ongoing humanitarian situation surrounding the Muslim Rohingya population from Myanmar.
It was announced on August 28 that Francis would visit Myanmar from Nov. 27-30, before travelling to Bangladesh Nov. 30-Dec. 2.
Just three days earlier, on August 25, Rohingya militants attacked a security post in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, leading the army to begin what it called a “clearance operation.”
Since then, an estimated 500,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, joining hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya refugees who had fled the country over the past decades.
Francis has been an advocate for the Rohingya, making his latest appeal for them during his Angelus on August 27, when he urged for them to be given “full rights.”
Francis has often spoken about the Rohingya during interviews, Angelus addresses, and his Wednesday general audiences.
“I am sure the Holy Father will appreciate the steps taken by the Bangladeshi prime minister for opening the borders, and the honorable prime minister’s openness in inviting NGOs to come to the aid of the Rohingya,” D’Rozario told Crux.
Bangladesh is struggling to deal with the surge of refugees. It has trouble providing enough food for its own 163 million people, and the country’s infamous bureaucracy is hampering the efforts of several NGOs trying to help. But things are beginning to improve.
Last month D’Rozario personally visited the refugee camps where the Rohingya are staying in a sign of solidarity.
“Caritas Bangladesh is currently responding with humanitarian aid to 100,000 Rohingyas,” he told Crux.
Two popes have previously visited Bangladesh: Pope Paul VI did so in November 1970, when the country was still East Pakistan, and Pope John Paul II went in November 1986.