Monday, July 12, 2010

India/Bangladesh pilgrimage #3

Archbishop Marino, the Vatican nuncio or ambassador, entertained us at dinner our first and second nights in Dhaka. The other guests with us the first night included a Kenyan priest, Mark, who is the assistant nuncio and who was previously in Ghana. There were also 2 Bangladeshi priests, James, who teaches at Holy Cross College (we would call it a high school) and Emmanuel, academic dean at the Catholic seminary.

In Bangladesh, a Muslim country, Friday (the Muslim holy day) and Sat are holidays, and Sun is a work day. Sun morning began with mass at 7.30 am. The US ambassador, Jim Moriarty, and his wife, Lauren, regularly attend mass, and we got to meet them briefly.

Our first stop was Holy Cross College. Apparently, it's one of the best schools in Dhaka, and there were many families waiting there to try to get their sons admitted. We met the principal who told us that the school is mostly Muslim. He also said that fees for a student are only about $7 US and that a teacher's salary is about $2000 per year.

We then made stops at the cathedral, a parish church, and the hospice run by mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. The hospice was quite moving. It's as primitive as possible. There's no air conditioning, just 3 to 4 wards with multiple beds. One ward contains children with severe birth defects.

In the late afternoon we went to the Islamic Foundation, a government-supported institution that trains all the imams (clergy) for the mosques in the country. The director and staff emphatically told us that Islam is a peaceful religion and those who engage in terrorism are not Muslims. When it was founded Bangladesh was officially secular. A subsequent government made Islam the official religion, although the constitution explicitly states that all persons are to be allowed to practice their faith freely. From what I've seen, religious freedom is a reality in Bangladesh. There is considerable interaction among religious leaders and there appears to be no hostility.

In the evening we were again at the nunciature for dinner. The guest of honor was Mohammed Zamir, a member of the Bangladeshi cabinet and former ambassador. Zamir was fascinating. He speaks several languages and has published 13 books, including a book on the teachings of Islam. He is also a published poet. Zamir represents the progressive wing of Islam and a fatwa (religious decree) of death was issued against him for his writings. Nevertheless, he often travels without his bodyguard. He told us that he makes his bodyguards nervous. "What will happen if there's an attempt on your life?" one asked him. He replied, "Well, I may be dead; you will lose your job; but the world will go on."

Monday morning we left at 7.30 am to visit the Diocese of Myminsingh in the countryside. Bishop Puna of Mymeesingh traveled with us. One of our first stops was at a school where the entire student body of at least 100 students was lined up in rows to welcome us. They also sang and danced and presented us with flowers. We went even further into the jungle to visit another school. When we arrived, the priest told us that they had already had 163 snake bites there this year. Such encouragement!

We also met 3 students from the Univ of Notre Dame who are volunteering at the schools for a couple of months. They are part of an organization at UND that supports the schools by staging boxing matches. This year alone they raised $100,000.