Dhaka, Bangladesh (BBN)-The Bangladesh Supreme Court ruling on September 7 rejecting a petition challenging the legality of a constitutional provision recognizing Islam as the state religion has drawn criticism from activists including Christian leaders.
The petition, filed by Hindu lawyer Somendra Nath Goswami on August 1, argued that Islam’s status as the state religion flouts the country’s constitution, and is against the basic secular structure of the state, reports UCA News.
However, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of deputy attorney general, Murad Reza, who opposed the petition.
“The court rejected the petition on the grounds that the constitution ensures equal rights for people of all religions including Hindus, Buddhists and Christians,” Reza told reporters in Dhaka.
Drafted in 1972, soon after Bangladesh’s split from Pakistan in 1971, the original constitution declared the country a secular state with secularism being one of the four key principles.
However, military ruler Ziaur Rahman erased secularism from the constitution in 1977 while his successor, H.M. Ershard — another military ruler — made Islam the state religion in 1988.
The government led by the center-left Awami League party reinstated secularism in the constitution in 2011, following a Supreme Court ruling in 2009.
However, it kept Islam as the state religion out of fear of losing votes.
Minorities have opposed this decision ever since.
“In a democratic country secularism and having a state religion can’t exist side by side. It is contradictory and conflicting,” Nirmol Rozario, a Catholic and secretary of the Bangladesh Christian Association said of the Sept 7 ruling.
“In a modern democratic country, the state is for all, but religion is an individual matter. So a state religion goes against this spirit,” Rozario added.
No democratic government has dared revoke the state religion provision in the charter fearing a political backlash.
“The fear of losing an election over this issue is unfounded. Keeping Islam as the state religion never increases the vote for secular parties like the Awami League,” he said.
Father Albert Thomas Rozario, a High Court lawyer and secretary of Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission also hit out at the court ruling.
“The constitution is like a sacred document, like a Bible to a nation. But it should not deliver mixed messages to people,” said Father Rozario.
“Declaring secularism and having a state religion are in conflict with each other,” he said.
“If the constitution acknowledges all religions and people of all faiths equally, the state religion provision should go. Otherwise, it grants special status to Islam over other religions,” the priest said.
Father Rozario added that the government could have influenced the court’s decision.
“The court ruled in favor of the state religion provision because the government wants to keep it for political reasons. The court should have accepted the petition and showed its neutrality,” Father Rozario said.
Of Bangladesh’s 160 million people, about 90 percent are Muslims, eight percent are Hindus and the rest belong to other faiths including Christianity and Buddhism.