Thursday, April 30, 2009

We Remember: Mob-Attack on Catholic Church and School and Two Protestant Churches in Dhaka

The mob-attack on St. Francis Xavier's Girls' High School
at Luxmibazar, Dhaka, on April 28, 1998

(L-R): Attackers did not spare the statues of Virgin Mary (broken
hands) and St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of the school

(broken head and torso)

Newspaper reports of the attack

Photos Courtesy: The Book Luxmibazarer Lojjajonok Ghotona
(Shameful Incident of Luxmibazar), 1998

It happened 11 years ago on Tuesday, April 28, 1998. It was a planned attack of Muslim fundamentalists on the Holy Cross Catholic Church and St. Francis Xavier's Girls' High School as well as on St. Thomas Anglican Church and Sadarghat Baptist Church. All these churches and the school are in the Luxmibazar area of old Dhaka.


The issue was the question of ownership of a small piece of land in between St. Francis Xavier's Girls' High School and the Shahi Mosque. This land, with a small room, belonged to the nearby Catholic Church. Long ago it was used as a reading room for the public. Catholic religious books and publications were available there for non-Christians. Later, it was used as the office of the Pratibeshi, the monthly mouthpiece of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dhaka. Then it was used a sewing training centre of the Catholic Women's Association of Luxmibazar. Finally, for a good number of years, this room remained locked due to precarious condition of the old walls and roof of the room. From the purchase of this land by the church in 1876 until December, 1996, there was no claim of the adjacent mosque on this property.

As the Girls' school did not have a sufficient space for the waiting parents and guardians of girl students, the Sisters of the school, in cooperation of the church, decided to renovate and use the room for school purpose. On December 10, 1996, when the renovators went to work on the room, the Shahi Mosque committe members with some rowdies interfered with the renovation work and laid a claim on the property concerned. Later, in agreement of the School authority and the mosque committee, the Dhaka City Corporporation Estate Officer was engaged to check the ownership documents and measure the land. The Estate Officer, after a thorough scrutiny of the documents and measurement, gave his opinion in favour of the school. The Mosque committee was not satisfied at this and they even threatened to forcefully occupy the land.

As there was no agreement on the matter, ultimately the school authority filed a lawsuit on June 8, 1997. The court, on April 22, 1998, gave judgment in favour of the school and placed a temporary injunction on the mosque committee forbidding their interference in the renovation work of the room. Basing on this judgment, the school authority, in presence of some policemen, started renovation work around 10:00 a.m. on April 28, 1998 by cutting some trees that grew on the roof and walls. The President of the Mosque committee with some of his men, in front of the police, interfered in the renovation work and roughened up some of the labourers. When the school authority showed them the judgment of the court and other papers, the opponents left the place announcing: "Sister, you've already created the public sentiment. You have no idea as to how dangerous the public sentiment can be. Those, who got the news over the phone, have already begun their work." Then the renovation work also stopped.

After one-o'clock prayer in the mosque, there was an announcement from their mike (public address system): "Muslim Brothers of the locality, come forward. Jewish Christians are demolishing the mosque. Come to protect the mosque." This announcement was repeated for sometime.

After this call, agitated Muslims began to come in groups shouting slogans and assembled near the front gate of the school. Around five in the afternoon, they began to throw brickbats at the school gate. What happened then is now part of the history. The following press release of the Church leaders, given to the newspapers next day, gives a pen-picture of the attack.

Press Release

We, the leaders in the Christian community of Bangladesh, strongly condemn the unwarranted and scandalous attack on Christian church property in Luxmibazar on 28 April 1998. A large unruly crowd ransacked St. Francis Xavier Girls' High School, Holy Cross Church and nearby Baptist and St. Thomas churches. They threatened the lives of several priests, Sisters and staff workers. The damage to religious freedom and the mental anguish caused is immeasurable.

We recognize that this was not an attempt by the majority Muslim community to persecute Christians. Rather it was the motivated action of a group of people who are interested to destroy religious harmony in the country. We wish to express our appreciation to Minister of Home Affairs, Mr. Rafiqul Islam, for attending the place of occurrence immediately after the incident. He assured us of his assistance and that of the government.

This was a deliberate attempt by a group of fundamentalists to arouse the religious sentiments of common people by making a false announcement over the loud speaker of the adjacent mosque. The announcement falsely claimed that the mosque was being dismantled. The instigators of this riot acted in total disregard for the judicial and legal system of Bangladesh.

On 28 April 1998 the St. Francis Xavier Girls' High School began renovating the vacant building and clearing the trees on their property adjacent to the Shahi Mosque. This area is not a mosque or holy area. It lies within the designated property of the school. This was not a sudden action. The school authorities have been stating their intention to do this work for some time. Police were present as they started the work. However, this proved to be of little value as the police failed to control the crowd. The crowd was initially obstructed by the police. But they broke through the police lines and rampaged through the school buildings and area, and church building. They caused extensive damage to property. They terrorized Sisters and residents of the girls' hostel. They were led by people who wished to attack the Christian institution for their selfish purposes.

The crowd was then instigated to attack the 200-year old St. Thomas church. They smashed windows of the church buildings and broke down the back wall of the church compound. They threatened the lives of the residents, who were forced to seek police protection.

Around 6:30 p.m. the crowd attacked the nearby Sadarghat Baptist church compound, smashing the gate to gain entrance. Entering the houses of the residents they smashed furniture and threatened the occupants. The destruction only ceased when a severe rain storm swept over the area.

We appeal to the government to strongly condemn this incident and to take action against the instigators. We further urge the government to initiate a full investigation by a High Court judge. The Christian churches have served the local and wider community for several hundred years. They enjoy close relationships with all the local community regardless of religion. This action by a few communally motivated persons was an attempt to destroy the peace of the area.

This incident has created fear in the locl Christian community and indeed in the total Christian community of the country. But the instigators are continuing to stir up trouble. They have called public meetings on 2 and 5 May, 1998. We urge the government to take immediate steps to protect the Christians and Christian property in the immediate and surrounding areas.

Finally, we ask all people to join us in prayer for peace, a just and reasonable settlement, and wisdom for the Government authorities.

--Fr. Benjamin Costa
Catholic Church of Bangladesh

--Mr. Samson Chowdhury
National Christian Fellowship of Bangladesh

--Mr. Albert A. Samaddar
Church of Bangladesh

--Mr. Susanta Adhikari
Bangladesh Baptist Sangha

--Mr. Dennis D. Datta
Bangladesh Baptist Fellowship

The cover of the book, Luxmibazarer Lojjajonok Ghotona(Shameful Incident of Luxmibazar), published in 1998.
This book documented the events from different angles
and compiled various newspaper clippings and photos
of the sad incident of April 28.

It may be noted that, although some government officials at the time had promised to officially investigate into the mob attack on the churches and school, it was never realized. Later the Catholic Church officials, however, in consideration of future communal peace and harmony in the locality, donated that piece of land to the mosque.

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