Interreligious Dialogue and Bengali Society
In Bangladesh, over 100 Xaverian Missionaries have served here since 1952. They have witnessed the plodding progress and growth of the mission, with the formation of the local clergy, Christian villages, and numerous catechists. Bangladesh has also seen the martyrdom of two Xaverian Missionaries, Fr. Veronesi and Fr. Cobbe, who have worked on behalf of the outcasts of this nation. Interreligious dialogue has become increasingly important in a country that is so religiously diverse, and Christianity is a minority faith. Fr. Mimmo Pietanza, who has worked for many years in interfaith dialogue in Bangladesh, shares with us his experience.
To be active and to make people aware of the importance of peaceful and good relations between the various religious groups, with mutual respect in Bengali society, is the task of the Interreligious Dialogue Centre in Khulna, Bangladesh. It consists of about sixty people, all professionals in different sectors of society: government offices, universities, colleges, and commerce. They belong to different religions, Islamic, Hindu, and Christian. They seek to live and spread the ideal of coexistence between different religious groups in the name of the ‘human’ value. Meeting the public and fostering knowledge of other religions, telling and sharing one’s religion and faith, giving importance to the dignity and respect of every human, and bearing in mind the differences in religion, is our task and activity. We do not affirm our personal religious beliefs by denigrating and despising the world of others. Let us recognize ourselves as humans created by the Most High who, in his name, respect and favor that his creatures be in peace and contentment. In this perspective, there can be no competition and no culture of contempt and hatred. The Creator has allowed each ethnic group to express itself and rejoice in its identity so that the world is like a garden full of various and different colored flowers that are beautiful to see and to live in.
In our sharing in the group, let us be mindful that we are all equal in dignity and in how we express our personality in our dealings with others. In the past, society created caste divisions where a person had their ‘human’ value according to the caste position they had in society. The caste system is very divisive and profound because it ‘constantly’ does not allow for spontaneity in individual relationships. “You are worth it because of your caste position in society. You can claim privileges because you ‘belong to a certain caste’. This is the structure of the Bengali mind that appears self-evident and spontaneous if there is no personal and communal control. It has worked like this for millennia. Different social classes, degrees of dignity, ways of living, and environments were accepted as natural, normal, and logical. In the caste system, people have no equality, so relationships are limited. “You cannot express your personality and love for me because your caste differs from mine.”
In our group relations, we are careful that this does not happen; there is no powerful group because it is more numerous or/and because it is richer that prevails over the others. Sometimes there are attempts in this direction, mainly from the majority group or someone’s leadership position in the working environment, but we abort them. Equality is essential; we are all equal because the Creator created us that way. We live the conviviality of differences. Sometimes, in my speeches in the group, I emphasize this openly so that we can all be conscious and content. I am helped by the national consciousness also created by national poets and writers, people we all respect and share ideas with. Speaking of caste divisions, to overcome them, our Centre members dreamt and pointed the way to equality and solidarity.
But even here in Bangladesh, in society, we have become ‘customers’, users of services that the state and/or commercial companies give us, charging us for. We are no longer humans and citizens. The human is becoming extinct. For the past ten years, the Bengali government has taken and opened a new path, which is that of the commercial mentality. It is confined to business relations and everywhere in every attitude and action of the individual in society. Today, all students, the expression and future of society, study commerce, banking, industrial management, and the banking system. School subjects such as literature, history, geography, astronomy, and religion no longer exist. Only business subjects are studied. There are no longer schools that look at the human aspect of life. People, families, and groups have all become ‘customers’. This is how the current Bengali government sees progress.
This makes our work in interreligious dialogue difficult because I realize that the new generations no longer understand, do not know their identity and history, even national history, and do not know what human values are, such as concord, mutual respect, altruism, social solidarity, and peace in human relationships and within their hearts. This way of thinking and living makes many victims; those weaker socially or individually are left out. Various forms of juvenile discomfort are created, sometimes leading to lethal consequences. But how can interreligious dialogue occur when religion is no longer believed, lived, and practiced? I do hear people saying, ‘I have no religion, I do not believe in any god, I do not believe in anything’; socially, they live a religious form of façade because they do not want to become victims of blame and denigration at a social level among relatives, friends, and colleagues. But in this society that tends more and more towards social fragmentation, hoarding, and accumulation to increase one’s individualistic economic power, a new foundation needs to be made for the discourse of interreligious dialogue. Perhaps we should call it inter-social dialogue.
The digital world creates new types of ‘humans’, here some call young people ‘the smartphone and mobile phone junkies’, because they are busy with their mobile phones all day and do not detach themselves from them. How do we get them away from their mobile phone use and get them interested in their own human, local reality, building stable and lasting relationships to live in peace and happiness with their neighbours and in society? How do these young people see and plan their future? The world of the ‘human’ is increasingly complicated and it is difficult to interact with it. I tell myself, perhaps also to give myself courage, that long is the road and narrow is the way, thinking of my presence as a missionary priest alongside them. I ask the Lord to be close to me, with a lighted lamp and enough light, for what is needed, so that I can continue to meet people. It takes intelligence to understand how things are, to know why, and to find a way that leads to them. In the near future, I think it will no longer be religion that will continue to have great importance in Bengali society, but ‘the heart of each person’. However, the heart is difficult to understand and … to involve in gestures of care and love towards others.