Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists are laid to rest side by side in the country’s only interfaith cemetery
In an industrial hub on the banks of the River Shitalakshya, about 30 kilometers from Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, stands a cemetery on about 8,100 square meters of land.
It is the only cemetery in this Muslim-majority country where followers of four major religions — Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists — have been buried for decades.
Administered by Narayanganj City Corporation since 1972, the history of this unique final resting place in the Masdair area of Narayanganj district is largely undocumented. Local sources say it developed as a Hindu cremation site during the British colonial era before it slowly developed into a melting pot for other faiths.
There are about 3,000 Catholics in Narayanganj, mostly migrants employed in various industrial plants including garment factories, served by St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
Holy Cross Father Elias Hembrom, the parish priest, noted that the interfaith cemetery has played a unique role in sustaining harmony among religions for years.
“This cemetery has become a symbol of interfaith harmony not only for local people but also in the country. This is a unique communal coexistence of various religions and a cause of pride for us all,” Father Hembrom told UCA News.
Despite sporadic cases of sectarianism and religion-based violence, Bangladeshi people largely uphold the spirit of religious pluralism, the priest noted.
Pintoo Policup Purification, 53, a local Catholic and community leader, said his late father was among the first Christians who sought permission from the government for burial of Christians in the cemetery.
“At first Hindus used it for cremation of the dead, and then Muslims were allowed to bury people. Then Catholics and Protestants requested local municipal officials for permission to use it for burial and it was granted,” Purification, a father of two who was born and raised in the area, told UCA News.
His family members have been buried in the graveyard and he also wishes to be laid to rest there.
He pointed out that people in the area have been liberal and harmonious for decades and recalled how Muslims saved his family from abuses during the 1971 War of Independence.
“In 1971, ours was the only Catholic family and local Muslims protected us from persecution of the military and their collaborators. For years, we have been living in harmony without any troubles,” Purification said.
Bangladesh, long known as a moderate Muslim country, has made headlines since 2013 due to a sharp rise in Islamic militancy that led to a series of killings of atheist bloggers, liberal Muslims, religious minorities and foreigners by homegrown Islamic terrorist outfits.
Purification believes the violence and bigotry are the results of the “evilness” of a few radicals and collusion between politics and religion. He believes it doesn’t represent the true nature of Bangladesh.
The cemetery symbolizes the communal harmony that has existed in the area for ages, said Shikhon Sarkar, 53, a Hindu leader and secretary of the local unit of Puja Celebration Council in Narayanganj.
“The land of the cemetery was donated to the government by a Hindu man a long time ago for a cremation site with an intention of community welfare. Then a space was provided for Muslims as they didn’t have a burial ground, and then Christians and Buddhists have been included too,” Sarkar told UCA News.
He noted that when people become non-communal at a personal level, communal harmony is established slowly and strongly day by day.
“It is true there are people in every community who don’t believe in harmony, but their numbers are few. Bangladesh as a state was founded on the principles of harmony and despite some unexpected incidents people of all faiths have been living peacefully side by side. Everyone, from individuals to leaders and institutions, has to continue their role to keep up the spirit of harmony,” Sarkar added.
A local government official said the existence of this unique cemetery is a cause of great pride.
“It is truly a rare cemetery where people of four faiths are buried side by side. When people are alive, they celebrate Eid, Puja and Christmas together and they are united in death as well. We are happy to bound by harmony from life to death,” Kamrul Hasan, a councilor of Narayanganj City Corporation, told UCA News.
He said he is proud to be a public representative of an area that has a strong tradition of religious harmony.
“There are isolated incidents that pose threats to harmony, but what we have here represents what Bangladesh stands for. When we are united and cooperative, we can overcome such threats,” he added.