Pope Francis is a welcome ally to Bangladesh's minority Catholic community

During the annual festival of Eid-ul-Azha, the lighting of festival lights at night in Dhaka, Bangladesh, becomes common. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Dhaka, Bangladesh — Last week was a week of big events, including Pope Francis' visit to the United States and the annual convergence of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly.

But on the streets of Dhaka on Sept. 23 and 24, the big event was the annual festival of Eid al-Adha, the Islamic holiday to mark the tale, recounted in both the Quran and the Bible, of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael (Isaac).

With the festival comes the ritual slaughter of cows and goats during the day — an astonishing sight for a first-time visitor to Dhaka — and the lighting of festival lights at night. (Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, observed the holiday in New York, where she is heading a 60-member delegation to the U.N. meetings.)

I doubt the pope himself would have minded that people's attention here in Dhaka was focused elsewhere. Francis seems like the type of person who would appreciate the frenetic pace of a teeming city slowing down a bit. Certainly, the Catholic sisters I have been meeting — not to mention some of Pope Francis' fellow Jesuits — have used the time to rest a bit and catch up with things.

Traffic in Dhaka becomes less frantic during the Eid-ul-Azha holiday. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

None of them was obsessing about the pope's visit to the United States, and that's a nice corrective to the wall-to-wall coverage I saw from back home.

Not that the visit (or what Francis had to say) wasn't important or that people here in Bangladesh weren't interested in the pope's journey to Washington, New York and Philadelphia. But they did seem to view the visit, and certainly the United States itself, with a certain sense of balance and wry appraisal. The pope visits other countries, too, doesn't he?

While I have sensed a hint of hesitancy about Francis here among some people, overall, the pope seems to have the support, if not the affection, of the Catholic community in Bangladesh — a community that is a distinct (and very small) minority in a predominately Muslim country but whose work and reach have an influence well beyond their numbers.

Catholic sisters here "have made a very significant contribution to this country," said Bangladesh journalist and environmental activist Philip Gain, himself a product of a Catholic education.

Holy Cross Sr. Pauline Gomes, director of student affairs at Holy Cross College in Dhaka (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Of Pope Francis, Holy Cross Sr. Pauline Gomes, director of student affairs at Holy Cross College in Dhaka, said, "He's a real human being — a people person — and he's concerned about people." She added: "He has no 'wall.' He's open."

Francis may still have work to do in fully winning over some of the Catholic hierarchy here and elsewhere, but one of the striking things in interviews here this past week is that, as I found in an assignment not long ago in Colombia, those who work on the frontlines of the church see Francis as a welcome ally. Many mentioned Laudato Sí, the pope's environmental encyclical, as most welcome at a time when many in Bangladesh are concerned about the country's particular vulnerability to climate change.

"People are excited about the pope," Gain said, because "he's speaking up. He's speaking out, and he's taking sides. He's making bold statements, like on the environment."

There are other points of praise, too.

"The Holy Father is inspiring us to take up less 'comfortable' projects," Benedict Alo D'Rozario, executive director of Caritas Bangladesh, told me. That means humanitarian work aimed at children who live on the streets, drug addicts and sex workers, among others.

Certainly, overall praise doesn't mean people agree with pope on all matters. One Jesuit I spoke to said he didn't think the environmental encyclical was particularly groundbreaking. And one sister told me she thinks Francis has not said as much as he might on the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

On the streets of Dhaka, the Big Event taking pride of place was the annual festival of Eid-ul-Azha, the Islamic holiday which marks the tale, recounted in both the Quran and the Bible, of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. With the festival comes the ritual slaughter of cows and goats during the day. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Yet on balance, Francis is liked, if not beloved, and his championing of the poor resonates in a country that has made notable strides against poverty and yet still faces severe challenges. As the World Bank has noted, since 1992, more than 15 million Bangladeshis have left the ranks of the poor. But "the absolute number of people living below the poverty line remains significant" — about a third of Bangladesh's 150 million people.

Those are the kind of realities that engage world leaders like Pope Francis and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the U.N. as they eye new goals to reduce global poverty.

In the meantime, though, on the streets of Dhaka, there has been a holiday to celebrate. It is still taking a few days for life to return to normal.

[Chris Herlinger is a contributing writer to GSR and also writes on humanitarian and international issues for NCR.]

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