DHAKA – A day ahead of the first papal visit to Bangladesh in over two decades, moderate Muslims welcomed on Thursday Pope Francis’ visit, while hardliners viewed his arrival with caution and skepticism.
Pope Francis was due to arrive in Bangladesh on Thursday, a country in which 88 percent of its 160 million inhabitants practice Islam. The Christian community represents about 0.4 percent of the population, which includes around 400,000 Catholics.
Islamist leaders and theologians welcome the pontiff, grateful for his message of solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable people and for having spoken out in favor of the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled violence in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh in recent months.
“He always speaks for the oppressed all over the world. On the Rohingya issue also he took sides with the oppressed, it is difficult not to feel respect for someone like that,” said Maulana Fariduddin Masoud, chairman of Bangladesh Jamiatul Ulama (BJU), a national theological body.
“Personally he has many human qualities, I do not consider him only from a religious point of view, I respect him and I would call the people of our country to show a similar respect,” he added expecting a reception according to traditional Bangladeshi hospitality.
Pope Francis will arrive in Dhaka from Myanmar, which has been heavy criticized for its military operation against the Rohingyas, 620,000 of whom have sought refuge in Bangladesh.
During his visit, he will meet with representatives of the Rohingya community during an inter-faith event at the Archdiocese of Dhaka Friday.
There will also be delegations representing the Anglican Church, the Buddhist community, Hindus and Muslims.
Mohammad Salahuddin, the chief cleric of the Baitul Mukarram Mosque, told EFE that Muslims had no reason to be offended by the Pope’s visit.
“Bangladesh is a country of harmony between communities, here people of all religions live peacefully. Islam is a tolerant religion,” he said.
“He has no dogma of confrontation and neither do we,” he added.
Members of Hefazat-e-Islam, a hardline Islamist group, were more cautious ahead of the Pope’s arrival.
Although they claim to be appreciative of his visit, they said they would remain vigilant to ensure the feelings of Muslims are respected.
“Any religious leader can come, it’s not a problem for us. He is coming to a Muslim majority country and we thank him,” Hefazat spokesman Azizul Islam told EFE.
“But we have to see that no one hurts the religious feelings of Muslims during their visit, let’s hope that no one makes any attempt to carry out propaganda against Islam by taking advantage of the visit,” he said.
Despite their reservations, the organization, which is known for supporting gender separate schools, prosecution of atheists and the death penalty for blasphemy, thanked the Pope for his position on the Rohingya crisis.
“We thank him for the visit, we see his sympathy with the Rohingyas as a good thing, it is natural for any human being to be on the side of the cause of other human beings,” Islam added.