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Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.”  The constitution stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion and bans religiously based political parties.  It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions.  The constitution states no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.

Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison.  Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad.  The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.”  The law applies similar restrictions to online publications.  While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code, as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act and the Digital Security Act, to charge individuals for acts perceived to be a slight to Islam.  The Information and Communication Technology Act criminalizes several forms of online expression, including “obscene material,” “expression(s) likely to cause deterioration of law and order,” and “statements hurting religious sentiments.”  The Digital Security Act likewise criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” by denying bail to detainees and increasing penalties on conviction of up to 10 years in prison.

The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of “destroying religious harmony,” the peaceful coexistence of religious communities, or creating discrimination on religious grounds.

Individual houses of worship are not required to register with the government.  Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register as NGOs with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not.  The law requires the NGOAB to approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects.  The NGOAB Director General has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation, or closure of the NGO.  NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government).  Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence, Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence; the standards for these clearances are not specified.

Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations.  Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include certifying that the name being registered is not already taken, and providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; confirmation of security clearances for leaders of the organization from the National Security Intelligence; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; a work plan; a copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative.

Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.

Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption contains separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians.  These laws are enforced in the same secular courts.  A separate civil family law applies to mixed-faith families or those of other faiths or no faith.  The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings.  A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again.  A Christian man may marry only one woman.

Hindu men may have multiple wives.  Officially, Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur.  Hindu women may not inherit property under family law.  Buddhists are subject to the same laws as Hindus.  Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry.  Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry.  Marriage between members of different religious groups occurs only under civil law.  To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some Muslim marriages are not registered.  Registration of marriages for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.

Under the Muslim family ordinance, a Muslim man may marry women of any Abrahamic faith; however, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim.  Under the ordinance, a widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child.  Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands.  Civil courts must approve divorces.  The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate.  Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.

Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling out of court family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership.  With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.

Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice.  Fatwas may not be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.

Religious studies are compulsory and are part of the curriculum for grades three through ten in all public government-accredited schools.  Private schools do not have this requirement.  Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students are supposed to receive instruction in their own religious beliefs, although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.

The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations by prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons.  The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy or regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them.  Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a faith of their choice before execution.

The Restoration of Vested Property Act allows the government to return property confiscated from individuals, mostly Hindus, whom it formerly declared enemies of the state.  In the past, authorities used the act to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups that fled the country, particularly following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In response to the violence and destruction that occurred in October following a Facebook post that spurred attacks against Hindus, government officials at the highest levels, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, condemned the attacks and called the violence and destruction of Hindu temples and property un-Islamic.  The Ministry of Religious Affairs donated building supplies and food packages to Hindu families, and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, in conjunction with the government, provided tents to displaced victims.  To stop the further spread of violence, the government took action to remove postings from social media that it considered provocative, such as fake pictures that triggered attacks on Hindus.  Some human rights organizations, however, said the government’s actions to arrest and charge thousands of individuals were overbroad and, in some cases, deliberately targeted political rivals.  By October 26, police arrested 583 suspects for their roles in the violence and brought 102 criminal charges against 20,619 individuals, including the local man who first publicized the supposed desecration on Facebook.  Authorities charged a Hindu youth under the Digital Security Act for alleged anti-Islamic speech he posted online October 17, which they said angered Muslims and led to anti-Hindu reprisals in the northwestern city of Rangpur.  On October 20, the government announced formation of a National Human Rights Commission panel to investigate October 17 attacks on Hindu establishments in the Peergang area of the northwestern district of Rangpur.  The government stationed border guard forces and Rapid Action Battalion units around the country to prevent violence and successfully maintained peace during the subsequent Hindu holiday, Diwali, on November 4.

Some Hindu community leaders said the actions the government took in response to the communal violence helped calm the situation.  Other Hindu organizations disagreed, saying the government took insufficient measures to quell the violence and stated the government’s failure to punish perpetrators of previous periods of religious violence contributed to October’s events.  When the Foreign Minister stated four Muslims and two Hindus died during the violence but neither Hindu died due to communal attacks and no temples were destroyed, Hindu organizations strongly protested, noting this contradicted other official government statements.  The Bangladesh Hindu Law Reform Council said the Foreign Minister’s statement was an attempt to cover up anti-Hindu attacks, and some human rights activists said the Foreign Minister’s statement enabled further violence.  One international Hindu organization said police stood by in many locations rather than protecting Hindus from mob violence, and that the government arrested several Hindu individuals, which the organization called “prisoners of conscience,” for sharing information about the ongoing violence on social media.

On February 10, a judge of the Anti-Terrorism Special Tribunal in Dhaka sentenced to death eight Islamic militants for killing a publisher in 2015.  Two of the eight sentenced men remained at large at year’s end.  The tribunal convicted the men, members of the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam, of hacking to death Faisal Abedin Deepan, a publisher of books on secularism and atheism.

On February 16, a court sentenced five men to death and one to life in prison for the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy.  The trial began in the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in April 2019 and was delayed several times due to COVID-19.

A special tribunal in Dhaka sentenced to death 14 members of the banned Harkak-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Islamist group on March 23 in a case involving a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2000.  Prosecutors alleged the defendants, members of a group that was banned in 2005, planted a bomb at a political rally where Hasina was scheduled to address supporters the following day.  Of the 14 sentenced, five remained fugitives at the end of the year.

On November 23, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty of Salauddin Salehin, a member of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), who was convicted in the 2004 killing of Goni Gomez, a Christian convert from Islam, in Jamalpur.  The Dhaka Speedy Trial Tribunal initially sentenced Salauddin to death in 2006.

On November 1, a tribunal in Rajshahi that handles cybercrimes sentenced three individuals to 10 years in prison under the Information and Communication Technology Act for sharing a satirical cartoon and comments the tribunal deemed obscene about the Prophet Muhammad in 2013 from a Facebook account.  According to the prosecution, two of the convicted defendants allegedly shared a distorted picture of the Prophet on a Facebook account in the name of a Hindu man who had nothing to do with the posting.  The third defendant then printed and sold copies of the cartoon to Muslim villagers.  In response, local Muslims set on fire the home of the Hindu man.  In addition to the three individuals sentenced to prison, authorities charged seven others in the wake of the incident, but the court acquitted them.

In April, police arrested more than 300 members of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam over deadly protests around the March visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Accusing Modi of stoking religious discrimination against Muslims in India, the group led violent protests across several districts during Modi’s two-day visit.

On February 25, Forest Department officials tore down a Sathirampara Seventh-day Adventist church in Bandarban District.  The congregation was replacing the bamboo hut they had been using for many years with a more permanent brick building.  A Forest Department official said the community did not have a permit to build on the land, and that in the village “there are only three or four Christian families; there is no need for a church.”

In October, the Bangladesh Cyber Tribunal formally charged Baul folk singer Rita Dewan with blasphemy stemming from a February 2020 incident when a lawyer accused her of making derogatory comments against Allah during a musical competition, for which she issued an apology afterward.  Criminal charges were brought against Dewan that same month under the penal code and Digital Security Act, and a court issued a warrant for her arrest in December 2020.  Dewan surrendered to authorities and was granted bail in January.

Human rights organizations reported an increase, compared with 2020, in the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions.”  The incidence rose from eight cases in calendar year 2020, to 12 cases from January to November.  One organization which closely tracked the issuance of these fatwas attributed the rise to a deterioration of law and order and unrest due to COVID-19.

Thousands of mosques, including Baitul Mukarram National Mosque in Dhaka, operated under the direct authority of the Islamic Foundation; imams and employees of those mosques were funded by the government.  Mosques not overseen by the Islamic Foundation still operated with oversight from a governing committee that was dominated by local ruling party politicians and administration.  Islamic leaders said the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and to provide guidance on the content of sermons to imams throughout the country.  This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad.  The government also instructed imams to denounce extremism.  Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy.

The BHBCUC said property-restitution cases were on hold, as tribunals and appellate tribunals were not in session from March 2020 to October 2021.  According to the Ministry of Land’s 2018-2019 report, the most recent figures available, as of 2018, authorities had adjudicated 26,791 of 114,749 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act.  Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 12,190 of the cases, recovering 10,255 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 14,791 cases.  Media reports and rights activists attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.

Freedom House’s 2021 report assessed religious minorities remained underrepresented in politics and state agencies, and that members of ethnic and religious minority groups faced some discrimination under the law, as well as harassment and violations of their rights in practice.

Religious minorities continued to state that religious minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes because of an insufficient number of teachers for mandatory religious education classes for students of non-Islamic faiths.  In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 22.4 billion taka ($260.47 million) for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which covers July 2021-June 2022.  The budget included 19.35 billion taka ($225.0 million) allocated for development through autonomous religious bodies.  The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 17.58 billion taka ($204.42 million).  The Hindu Welfare Trust received 1.724 billion taka ($20.05 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 32 million taka ($372,000) from the allocation.  While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the budget, it received 10.3 million taka ($120,000) to run its office.  For comparison, in 2020, the ministry had a budget of 16.93 billion taka ($196.86 million), including 14.25 billion taka ($165.70 million) allocated for development through autonomous religious bodies.  The government provided 8.12 billion taka ($94.42 million) for the Islamic Foundation, 1.435 billion taka ($16.69 million) for the Hindu Welfare Trust, 46.8 million taka ($544,000) for the Buddhist Welfare Trust, and seven million taka ($81,400) for the Christian Welfare Trust.

Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including some involving the government, that remained unresolved at year’s end.  Some human rights activists said it was often difficult to determine whether these disputes and evictions were a result of deliberate government discrimination against religious minorities or of government inefficiency.  The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas.  In January, more than 1,000 ethnic Garo and Koch individuals, mostly Christians, rallied at a bus stop in Tangail to protest a notice from the Forest Department ordering them to vacate their ancestral lands in the Modhupur forest.  According to minority religious associations, land disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had increased.  They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriations for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution.  Some human rights groups 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 to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.  Indigenous groups in the CHT, in particular, have large communities of Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.  Some of these communities speak tribal languages and do not speak Bangla, making it difficult for them to access government services and further marginalizing these groups.

The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including during Diwali, Christmas, Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.

Due to COVID-19, President Abdul Hamid did not host his usual annual receptions to commemorate principal Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future