DHAKA, Bangladesh — Advent was coming when Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to Muslim-majority Bangladesh in 1986.

Following a local custom, the Holy Father planted a tree in the sprawling green area around a monument at Savar, near Dhaka.

Twenty years later, that tree is like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

It’s small and stunted, while others planted by dignitaries who visited the memorial around the same time have grown much bigger.

In fact, the tree planted by President Li Xian-nian of China the same year wears a majestic look, with its thick foliage covering a large area.

Holy Cross Father Bakul Rozario, vice principal of Notre Dame College in Dhaka, who was ordained by the Pope the same day the tree was planted, told the Register that pious Catholics have been guilty of plucking away the leaves of the tree as a token of their faith, further slackening the growth of a slow-growing plant.

Whether the Muslim horticulturist deliberately chose a slow growing tree for the Pope or not, the tardy growth bears eloquent testimony to the difficult life of the Church in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

This Christmas, the number of Catholics in Bangladesh remains static at .02% of its 147.3 million people and has even declined compared to the growth ratio of Muslims. With conversion remaining a very sensitive issue, the Church has to be content being merely a social service provider for the Muslim majority.

“We have new churches but we are not growing in the way we want to,” Bishop Theotonius Gomes, secretary general of Catholic Bishops Conference of Bangladesh, told the Register in an interview at his office in late October.

Asked how the Church is going ahead with evangelization work, Bishop Gomes replied, “It is very tough. We have to be extremely careful about it in most places.”

A Catholic convert from Islam was murdered two years ago, for example.

However, Bishop Gomes pointed out that the regions where the Church feels most relaxed are in ethnic tribal areas like Mymensingh and Chittagong Hill tracts, where Christians enjoy a greater sense of religious freedom with lesser Muslim population around.

“We need to prepare more people for the service of the Church. But we have our limitations,” acknowledged Bishop Gomes, who is also the chairman of Caritas Bangladesh.

Sunday Debate

This Christmas is a holiday in Bangladesh, but Sunday never is.

While schools and Sunday catechism remain powerful tools for the Church to foster vocations, the Church faces many hurdles on this front. Sunday marks the beginning of the week in Bangladesh, not a day of rest, and even Catholic schools have to remain open on the Lord’s Day. The Church holds catechism classes on Fridays in many places.

Christian life in Bangladesh turned upside down in the 1980s, when military ruler General Hussain Ershad decided to make Friday — the Muslim holy day — the weekly holiday instead of Sunday. This decision was widely hailed by the Muslim majority, while the objections from the minuscule Christian community went unheeded.

The shifting of the weekly holiday in Bangladesh came soon after Muslim-majority Pakistan changed it to Friday. But when Pakistan reverted to Sunday after a few years under pressure from businessmen and others, the pro-Islamic lobby did not facilitate the same response in Bangladesh.

“We were very upset when this was introduced. But now, we have got used to it,” Benedict Alo D’Rozario, executive director of Caritas Bangladesh, told the Register.

In fact, like most of the 400-odd schools run by the Church, for the dozens of Caritas staff across Bangladesh, Sunday is a working day.

Following the Christian protests, D’Rozario recalled that the government had issued a statement allowing Christians to take a one-hour leave from work on Sundays. But he added that nobody remembers this statement and most working Christians go to church Saturday evening or early Sunday morning.

D’Rozario also has to worry about things like Christmas pageants that we take for granted.

“As a community, we are extremely careful not to offend their [Muslim] sensibilities,” said the Caritas chief whose network undertakes development and awareness programs in thousands of villages — most of them exclusively Muslim.

“I am very careful when I address the students about God and religion,” said Sister Mary Shanta Gomes, principal of St. Mary’s School in Chittagong, the commercial capital of Bangladesh. Most of the school’s 1,200 students are Muslim.

Though the parents are “very friendly and respectful to us,” Sister Gomes pointed out that she would always try to avoid any word that would be taken as an offense to Muslim sentiments. Though Christians feel worried whenever anything goes wrong in the Western world against Islamic interests, the nun pointed out that there has been calm and quiet reaction to the Danish cartoon row in February and the Sept. 12 remarks of Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg, Germany.

However, fear lingers among Christians scattered across Bangladesh.

Take the case of Uttam Sangma from Mymensingh, who has been working at a yard near the port city of Chittagong where old ships are dismantled for scrap metal. Workers are paid a pittance for highly dangerous work and are exposed to toxic chemicals.

“I am here because there is no job in my village,” said Sangma, who started working at the yard when he came to Chittagong at age 18 — 14 years ago. “If I get a reasonably good job, I will prefer to go back to my village and live there.”

Sangma lives in a rented house of mud and tin sheets in the Muslim neighborhood of Sitalpur. Two dozen Gharo tribal Catholic families live in rented houses there, eking out a hard life.

Recently married, Sangma has to be content with attending Christmas Mass in one of the rented houses whenever the priest visits the village. “We would like to live in a place where there is a church,” he said, “and where we feel more at home.”

Anto Akkara is based in

Bangalore, India.