Christianity in the Indian subcontinent is almost as old as Christianity in its birthplace. There is a strong tradition in south India that St. Thomas the Apostle introduced Christianity in India in 52 AD. ‘St. Thomas Christians’ there are a living proof of it. Yet, many a Muslim and Hindu in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh wrongly consider Christianity a recent phenomenon and a foreign one at that.
The Advent of the Portuguese and Christianity in Bengal:
Renowned Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope of South Africa in 1498 and landed at Calicut (present Kozikode of India) by discovering the sea-route to India. From 1500 onwards, the Portuguese established their power first in Cranganore, then to Cochin and Goa. With these traders and commercial opportunists, also came Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and Jesuit missionaries to bring Indian heathens to Christ.
From 1517 onwards, Portuguese traders from Goa were traversing the sea-route to Bengal but were not successful in establishing trading posts in this part of India. Only in 1537, were they allowed to settle and open customs houses at Satgaon (near present-day Hooghly) of West Bengal (India) and Chittagong of present-day Bangladesh. In 1577, Mughal emperor Akbar permitted the Portuguese to build permanent settlements and churches in Bengal.
The first Christians in Bengal were the Portuguese themselves. After their intermarriage with local women, their descendants became the first indigenous Christians. Then came the local converts to Christianity from both Hinduism and Islam.
Christianity in Bangladesh:
Arab traders and aulias (holy men) brought Islam to Bangladesh through Chittagong and Sylhet in the 9th century AD. The Portuguese traders also brought Christianity to this country through the port of Chittagong, called the Porto Grande or the great port, in the 16th century, but the first church in Bangladesh was built in 1599 at Chandecan (also called Iswaripur or old Jessore) near Kaliganj in the Sunderbans of present Satkhira district. Jesuit Father Francisco Fernandez went to Chandecan in October, 1599, and with permission of King Pratapadittya built a church and a rectory there. This new church, called the ‘Holy Name of Jesus’, was officially dedicated on January 1, 1600, when the King himself was present in the ceremony. The second church, called ‘St. John the Baptist Church’, was built in Chittagong on June 24, 1600 by Jesuit Fathers Francisco Fernandez and Andre Boves with financial assistance from the King of Arakan (presently in western Myanmar or Burma).
In 1601, at the invitation of the Portuguese merchants, Dominican Fathers Gaspar da Assumpsao and Melchior da Luz went to Diang (Dianga), south-east of Chittagong on the Karnaphully River, and built the third church (chapel) there. When the Arakanese attacked the place, the chapel was burnt down and missionaries were manhandled. After this, the Dominicans left the place forever.
Jesuit Father Francisco Fernandez tried to save some Portuguese children from the Arakanese who had made them slaves. The Arakanese were so enraged that they captured Fr. Fernandez, beat him and placed him in chains in a dark prison. He died there on November 14, 1602 becoming the first Christian martyr in the territory comprising present Bangladesh.
In 1608, Islam Khan, the Mughal Subedar of Bengal, made Dhaka – previously a mere military outpost – the capital of Bengal. This was followed by progress and prosperity in business attracting Portuguese, Dutch, French and English merchants. In 1612, Portuguese Augustinian missionaries introduced Christianity in Dhaka. In 1628, they established a church, called the ‘Church of the Assumption’, in Narinda area of the city. The second church of Dhaka was built in 1677 at Tejgaon.
In 1695, the church of St. Nicholas of Tolentino was constructed at Nagori, 25 kilometres north-east of Dhaka. In 1764, Portuguese misionaries built a church at Padrishibpur in Barisal district. Another Portuguese church was built at Hashnabad, 30 kilometres south-west of Dhaka, in 1777. In 1682, there were 14,120 Roman Catholics in the Bangladesh territory.
As the Bangladeshi Muslims have Arabic and Persian surnames, so do the Portuguese-converted Catholics have Portuguese surnames, such as Gomes, Rozario, D’Rozario, Cruze, D’Cruze, Dores, D’Silva, D’Souza, Costa, D’Costa, Palma, Pinheiro, Pereira Rego, Ribeiro, Rodrigues, Serrao, Gonsalves, Corraya, etc. To recognize Catholics by names, the missionaries used to give one Christian name and one of their surnames to the newly-baptized person. The later Catholic missionaries from France, USA, Canada, and Italy did not follow the Portuguese in naming the new Christians. They gave one Christian name but did not change the surname of the newly convert.
Presently, the Catholic Church has six dioceses – Dhaka, Chittagong, Dinajpur, Khulna, Mymensngh, and Rajshahi – with a Catholic population of about 221,000, more than 70 parish churches, 200 priests, 50 Brothers, 700 nuns, 1,000 catechists, and many educational, healthcare, and welfare institutions and organizations.
William Carey was the greatest Protestant missionary who arrived at Serampore of West Bengal in 1793. This Englishman heralded the new missionary era in Bengal. Besides preaching, he left versatile contributions in Bengal. With Carey came the Baptist Missionary Society (British) in 1793, followed by Church Missionary Society (British) in 1805, Council for World Mission (British Presbyterian) in 1862, Australian Baptist Mission in 1882, New Zealand Baptist Mission in 1886, Oxford Mission (British Anglican) in 1895, Churches of God (American) in 1905, Seventh-Day Adventists in 1919, Assemblies of God in 1945, Santal Mission (Lutheran) in 1956, Bangladesh Mission of the Southern Baptist Convention (American) in 1957, and Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (American) in 1958. After the War of Independence in 1971, there was an influx of more Protestant missionary societies in Bangladesh.
Besides evangelism, these societies also plant churches, and establish and run various educational, healthcare, and welfare institutions and organizations. At present, the number of Protestants in Bangladesh is estimated to be around 150,000.
Contributions of the Christians:
The Churches in Bangladesh earned a reputation in the fields of education and works of mercy, including health services, for all – especially the poor, underprivileged, and helpless. In a country where almost 85% people are Muslims, running such educational and welfare institutions and organizations is both a challenge and a privilege. In these institutions and organizations, Christian love and values are practised in word, sign and deed.
Christians contributed immensely in the field of Bengali literature. Portuguese missionary Fr. Manuel da Assumpsao wrote Kripar Shastrer Orthobhed, which was printed in 1743 in Lisbon, Portugal, in Roman alphabets. It was a catechism in the question-answer form. He also wrote a 40-page Bengali grammar book and a 529-page Bengali-Portuguese and Portuguese-Bengali dictionary, called Vocabulario em Idioma Bengulla-e-Portuguez, divided em duas Partes. Dom Antonio da Rozario, a local Hindu prince converted by the Portuguese, was successful in making mass conversions (20,000 to 30,000) among low-caste Hindus in north of Dhaka. He wrote Brahmman-Roman Catholic Sambad, where a Roman Catholic dialogues with a Hindu Brahmin (priest) and tries to show the superiority of Christianity over Hinduism.
Baptist missionary William Carey translated and printed the Bible in Bengali, wrote many other books and a dictionary, called A Dictionary of the Bengali Language. He also helped develop Bengali type faces for printing and established Serampore Mission and College besides publishing newspapers and periodicals. His colleagues Dr. John Thomas, William Ward, Felix Carey (his son), John Pearson, and others also left their contributions in Bengali literature. The school system we have in Bangladesh is indebted to William Carey who had developed this system in Bengal. For the last few years, two Catholic Italian Xaverian missionaries – Fathers Marino Rigon and Silvano Garello – have been translating many works of 1913 Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Jashim Uddin and others into Italian. Their books have created an increasing intrerest of the Italians for Bengali literature and Bangladesh.
The Churches also left an indelible mark in helping victims of the War of Independence and various cyclones in the coastal region.
Although the Christians in Bangladesh are a microscopic minority (one Christian in every 324 Bangladeshis), the Churches are quite active. The contributions of the missionaries and Christians in different fields are a lasting tribute and witness to Christ. These contributions are flowing from the love of Christ and love of one’s neighbours.