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12 March 2001

WCC general secretary and the president of Bangladesh discuss minority rights, religious fundamentalism and development

Cf. WCC Press Release of 8 March 2001

State policies on minorities' and Indigenous people's rights, the negative impact of religious fundamentalism, and the socio-economic and political problems hindering Bangaldesh's development were topics raised by World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser during a one-hour meeting with the president of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Justice Shahabudin Ahmed, on Sunday, 11 March.

Raiser, who is visiting Bangladesh from 10-14 March, expressed special concern about a Vested Property Act directed against certain minority religions and previously used as an instrument to appropriate land at the time of the Bangladesh war in 1972.

Raiser emphasized the commitment and solidarity of the WCC and its member churches to and with the people of Bangladesh. The worldwide ecumenical family has been deeply involved in providing assistance for rural development, health care, literacy training and capacity-building in Bangladesh ever since its liberation struggle began in 1970, he said.

President Justice Shahabudin Ahmed assured Raiser that the government is prepared to return land to original claimants if the real owners establish their legal titles.

With regard to fundamentalist activities, Justice Shahabudin Ahmed said that although some sectors are lured by the fundamentalist groups, most Bangladeshis disapprove of religious fundamentalism. Such activities will be rejected in the long run, he predicted.

Justice Shahabudin Ahmed also said that over-population, illiteracy, and unsettled political rivalries are the main problems hindering democratic process, effective functioning of government and the strengthening of civil society. "Strengthening the democratic process is more important in Bangladesh today, and free elections alone will not make a country democratic; tolerance and mutual respect is an integral part of a democratic structure", he said.

Third-World Debt and Jubilee
Raiser addressed a public meeting organized by the National Council of Churches (NCC) of Bangladesh on "Third-World Debt and Jubilee". Cancellation of the debt of impoverished countries is an urgent concern of the ecumenical movement, Raiser told the more-than 200 economists, social scientists, human rights and social activists, trade unionists and NGO representatives attending the meeting. The cycle of indebtedness itself needs to be addressed in order to start a new cycle, and individuals and communities should be consulted before lending decisions are made, since it is ordinary people who must share the brunt of the burden when a country is indebted, Raiser suggested. Debtor and donor countries should realize that basic changes in the attitudes of international financial institutions are needed so that negative impact of indebtedness will not be felt even after some debt relief is accorded, he pointed out.

Raiser and his delegation attended a traditional Bengali evening worship service at a Baptist Church in Dhaka City where most members are migrant workers from impoverished rural areas. Addressing the congregation, the WCC general secretary said that "worshipping together... with fellow believers of Bangladesh and the fellowship, affection and sense of togetherness experienced irrespective of cultural or language barriers are our common bond of unity in Christ and a mark of living letters written with love".

Meeting the churches
The WCC visit started on Saturday, 10 March, with a welcome reception by church leaders at NCC headquarters followed by a meeting with NCC officers, Executive Committee members and the moderators of the NCC's various programme units. The church leaders expressed their concern about the aggressive evangelization policies of certain overseas church groups and local para-church agencies which hinder the ecumenical spirit and divide the church based on denominational identities. The leaders informed the WCC group that denominational rivalry has led to the establishment of 38 competing denominations and para-church groups. Christians represent 0.3 % of the country's population of 125 million, 88.3 % of whom are Muslim.

During the rest of its time in Bangladesh the WCC delegation will meet with Islamic leaders, with representatives of the two WCC member churches - the Bangladesh Baptist Sangha and the Church of Bangladesh - and with members of the Indigenous community. Raiser will lay the foundation stone of the NCC's new Ecumenical Centre, and attend an ecumenical meeting between representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, all NCC member churches, and other non-member churches in the country.

On Wednesday, 14 March, the WCC delegation will leave Bangladesh for Sri Lanka.

Members of the delegation:
Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, WCC
Dr Marion Best, United Church of Canada
Mr Mathews George Chunakara, WCC
Mr Clement John, WCC (Sri Lanka only)
Mr Bernt Jonsson, Mission Covenant Church of Sweden (Sri Lanka only)

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.