Summary paragraph: Police arrested two suspects with ties to an al-Qa’ida-inspired group in connection with the 2015 killing of a U.S.-born blogger critical of religious extremism. According to the press, one of the suspects confessed to involvement in the killing of four other secular activists. Despite government orders to the contrary, village community leaders, often working together with local religious leaders, used extrajudicial fatwas to punish individuals, mostly women, for perceived “moral transgressions.” Religious minority communities such as Hindus and Christians, who also are sometimes ethnic minorities, reported the government failed to effectively prevent forced evictions and land seizures. In these instances, the minorities said law enforcement was sometimes slow to respond. The MOE made significant changes to Bengali language textbooks, which were traditionally secular, such as removing non-Muslim authors’ content and adding Islamic content to nonreligious subject matter. Supreme Court authorities moved a sculpture depicting a blindfolded woman holding a scale from the court’s entrance to a less prominent space. Sources said the court took this action in response to statements that the “idol” stood against Islamic values. The government continued to provide law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered to be possible targets for violence.
The investigation into the 2016 killings of six secular bloggers, online activists, writers, and publishers remained inconclusive, according to press reports. Police had not charged any individuals by year’s end.
Outlawed militant group Ansar Al Islam, which according to press reports is likely loosely affiliated with al Qa’ida-inspired Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), claimed responsibility for killing nine individuals for “offending Islam” from February 2013 to April 2016. In April the High Court confirmed the death penalty for two individuals found involved in the nine deaths. Police charged suspects in two other killings, leaving six open investigations pending. According to a Daily Prothom Alo newspaper report published on September 9, police detained only seven of the 43 suspects in those six pending cases.
On November 6, police announced they had detained Abu Siddiq Sohel, whom they said had admitted to involvement in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy, a critic of religious extremism. On November 23, police said they had arrested another individual, Arafat Rahman, also wanted in connection with Roy’s killing. Machete-wielding assailants hacked to death Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, while he accompanied his wife home from a Dhaka book fair. The assailants also seriously injured Roy’s widow in the attack. The press reported that police suspected ABT of involvement in Roy’s killing, and a police official identified Rahman as a member. The press also reported Rahman had confessed to involvement in the killing of four other secular activists.
In line with its stated intent to facilitate an impartial inquiry into the November 2016 killing of three Santal Christians in law enforcement engagements and arson attacks, the government withdrew the Superintendent of Police of Gabandha District as well as the entire police force from the Govidaganj Sub-District in February to comply with a High Court order. On October 7, personnel from the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) detained Shah Alam, a Union Council member and one of the 33 accused in the case. Several others detained earlier were released on bail. According to media reports, at year’s end the PBI had not filed charges against a parliamentarian from the ruling party and a local civil servant reportedly involved in the incident.
Human rights organizations reported that, despite government orders to the contrary, village community leaders, often together with local religious leaders, used fatwas to punish individuals, mostly women, for perceived “moral transgressions,” such as adultery and other illicit sexual relations. From January to December, the human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) documented 10 incidents of punishments under fatwas, including societal shunning, whipping, and forced interim marriages between individuals of different religions. In February the High Court ordered a local government entity to report on action it had taken against the perpetrators of the extrajudicial punishment meted out to a man and a woman in December 2016 in Komolganj Upazila of Maulvibazar District for reported moral transgressions. At year’s end, no new developments were reported.
The government did not approve registrations for a number of religiously affiliated organizations. The government disallowed some religiously affiliated organizations to engage in relief operations for the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, such as Muslim Aid.
Hindus, Christians, and members of other religious minority communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, reported several property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, remained unresolved. According to religious minority associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders sometimes enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups, including Odhikar, attributed the lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout rather than government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.
Religious minorities continued to state minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes of their faith because of a lack of minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside of school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.
According to local organizations and media reports, the MOE made changes to Bengali language textbooks, including removing poems and stories penned by non-Muslim writers and replacing pictures of secular items in alphabet references, such as ol (a type of yam), with orna (hijab). The textbook revisions also introduced religious content in educational disciplines outside of religious studies. Local media reported Hefazat-e-Islam’s political advocacy influenced the government’s decision to make the changes to the school books. The media report also stated Hefazat-e-Islam was seeking more significant changes to the education system in coming years. Rasheda K. Choudhury, a human rights activist and educator, said “the government is trying to appease Islamists to get their votes”
In an April 11 meeting with approximately 350 Islamic clerics led by Hefazat-e-Islam Chief Allama Ahmad Shafi, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced the government’s recognition of degrees granted by thousands of unregistered Qawmi madrassahs. The government issued a notification permitting master’s degree equivalent status to the Dawra-e-Hadith, the highest degree offered to graduates by these exclusively religious educational institutes, thus making graduates eligible for government jobs. Some news reports suggested the government recognized the Qawmi madrassah system to win support in advance of the general election due to be held by January 2019.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 6.59 billion taka ($80.4 million) for the 2017-18 fiscal year, including 3.33 billion taka ($40.6 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 3.27 billion taka ($39.9 million), which was 98.10 per cent of the total development fund. The Hindu Welfare Trust received 54.8 million taka ($668,000) or 1.64 percent and The Buddhist Welfare Trust received 2.6 million taka ($31,700) or 0.26 percent of the total development allocation. The government did not release any of the two billion taka ($24.4 million) allocation the finance minister announced in his budget speech for the development of Hindu temples throughout the country. While The Christian Welfare Trust did not receive any development funding from the 2017-18 budget, it received 2.1 million taka ($25,600) to run its office.
On October 29, law enforcement detained six persons for vandalizing and looting a Hindu Durga temple in Shivalaya Upazila (sub-district) of Manikganj District. According to an October 31 Daily Ittefaq newspaper report, the temple committee chair accused a local Awami League leader and his nephew of inciting their constituency to vandalize the temple with the intention of seizing the land where the temple is situated.
On May 26, Supreme Court authorities removed a sculpture at the Supreme Court’s entrance depicting a blindfolded woman with scales in one hand and a sword in the other, dubbed “lady justice.” The court’s decision apparently came in response to demands from some Muslim clerics who stated the “idol” contradicted Islamic values and heritage and would interfere with Eid prayers. Supreme Court authorities removed the statute approximately two weeks after Prime Minister Hasina expressed her support for the clerics’ demand to remove the sculpture from the court premises. The move sparked counterprotests demanding the statue be reinstalled. On May 28, authorities reinstalled the statue in a less prominent space in the Supreme Court compound.
The government continued to provide law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, Christmas, Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.
According to news reports, the government provided extra security to protect Buddhist monasteries in Chittagong and Dhaka in anticipation of possible retaliation for the actions against Rohingya, the vast majority Muslim, by the military and civilians in Burma’s Rakhine State. No attacks materialized.
Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government maintained significant influence to appoint and remove imams and continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on some aspects of the content of their sermons. Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually avoided sermons that contradicted government policy.
The government continued to prohibit transmission of India-based Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla, which it stated spread extremist ideologies, and closed “peace schools” the government said reflected his teachings. According to civil society organizations, the government overreached in its efforts to ban Peace TV Bangla and could have allowed the locally produced programs featured on the channel to air, even if officials believed censorship of Zakir Naik was necessary.
A media monitoring cell established in 2016 to track media and blogs that write negatively about Hindu, Muslim, and other religious beliefs remained in place.
According to the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC), as of October, authorities had adjudicated approximately 3 percent of 200,000 property restitution cases filed under the Vested Property Return Act and returned a small portion of the land seized mainly from Hindus before the nation’s independence. The BHBCUC said deputy commissioners of the various districts and the Ministry of Law were responsible for the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India. The government did not amend the Vested Property Return Act to accelerate the process of return of land.
President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays.
On November 30, Prime Minister Hasina and other officials met Pope Francis, who, during a meeting at the presidential palace referred to the plight of refugees from Rakhine State and called for “decisive measures to address this grave crisis.” He was the first pope to visit the country in 31 years. Religious leaders across various faiths said they were encouraged by the pope’s visit and what it meant for religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation.