Ansar Ahmed Ullah:
British MPs and Peers participated in a high-level roundtable on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Bangladesh in the UK Parliament on 17 May. The event took place under the auspices of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Bangladesh Study Circle London.
While speakers underlined the secular aspiration of Bangladesh’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the efforts undertaken by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to protect minorities, they acknowledged that this harmony was threatened by the efforts of some Islamist groups in the country to stoke communalist tensions and that there was a need to remain vigilant.
Attendees included the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Fiona Bruce MP, Shadow Minister for the Indo-Pacific, Catherine West MP, Conservative MP Saqib Bhatti and Labour MP Sir Stephen Timms. The Scottish National Party’s Lisa Cameron and Lord Mendelsohn were represented by members of their offices. Also in attendance were senior representatives from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Bangladesh High Commission in London and the Church of England.
Aroma Dutta MP, an academic specialising in religious freedom and human rights, outlined that “Bangladesh has a unique composition of religions”. While she acknowledged that “there are some incidences of religious conflict”, she argued that “They are politically instigated and used as a political tool and weapon” by Islamist groups to assert Islamic supremacy and incite against the Government. Dr Gowher Rizvi, International Affairs Advisor to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh said that, in Bengali culture, “Distinction between religions doesn’t exist. We all come from the same stock – culturally and linguistically. There are no laws that inhibit religious freedom and persecution of religious minorities does not exist in Bangladesh. We are all the same – in peaceful coexistence.”
Baroness Verma, who chaired the event on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, said, “I have visited Bangladesh three times. Twice as an election observer and once as a Government Minister. There is a lot more that Bangladesh can do to tell its story, and today we were very pleased to hear about the freedoms, possibilities and potential that Bangladesh has to offer”. Syed Mozammel Ali, Chair of the Bangladesh Study Circle London, said, “In a region afflicted by communalist tensions, Bangladesh stands apart as a beacon of religious freedom. We were delighted to share this record in the UK Parliament today and hope to invite British MPs and peers to visit Bangladesh later this year, to see this cohesion success story for themselves”.