EDITOR’S NOTE: Dec. 16 is Bangladesh’s Liberation Day, the 40th anniversary of its independence from Pakistan.
DHAKA, Bangladesh (BP) — A Bangladeshi man picks up his microphone and begins to sing. He’s a muezzin, a man appointed by the mosque to herald the call to prayer. Five times a day, devout Muslims unfurl their mats, face Mecca and pray to Allah.
As the call to prayer begins, it wafts around corners, over buildings and finally seeps into a nearby Baptist church building where men and women gather to worship God.
The pastor pauses at the podium, distracted momentarily by the call to prayer. He clasps the microphone and continues preaching from Psalms.
In the run-up to the 40th anniversary of their nation’s independence on Dec. 16, Christians in Bangladesh say they have more to celebrate, like the inroads they are making into Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim communities in this predominantly Muslim nation.
Dec. 16 is known as Liberation Day in this nation of more than 158 million people — the day when Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan) won its independence from Pakistan in 1971.
BAPTISTS IN BANGLDESH
The first Southern Baptists came to Bangladesh in 1957 by boat. Burt Galvin*, an IMB worker, has served in South Asia for the past 17 years.
Galvin said when the first Southern Baptists came to Bangladesh there were only 11 churches in a convention with doctrinal beliefs that aligned with Southern Baptists.
In the first 20 years of Southern Baptist work in Bangladesh, only five churches were added to their partner convention. In the 1970s, Galvin noted, a new strategy developed for sharing the Gospel that led to a church planting movement among Hindus.
“Within 15 to 20 years, 200 churches were planted,” Galvin said.
In the 1980s, a church planting movement started among Bangladesh’s tribal people groups, which grew to around 200 churches.
Today there are 475 churches in the Bangladeshi Baptists’ convention that represent Hindu, Buddhist and some Muslim-background believers across the nation. This number continues to grow as IMB workers and national believers continue to share the Gospel with an increasingly receptive audience.
“It gives me the goosebumps,” said Jacci Aurora*, who serves with and her husband among Bangladesh’s tribal people groups. “We’re seeing the results from those who served in the past.”
Though significant strides have been made, Christians in Bangladesh account for well under 1 percent of the total population.
Most of the churches planted in the past 40 years are comprised of believers from Hindu or Buddhist backgrounds, Galvin said.
With Muslims accounting for around 85 percent of Bangladesh’s population, making it the fourth-largest Muslim country in the world, ministry among Muslims has begun to take off in the past 15 years.
Darryl Pogue*, an IMB worker, estimates that since 1997 more than 10,000 baptisms have been recorded and 1,500 house churches started among Muslims in Bangladesh. Currently, there are six church planting movements among Muslims related to IMB workers and Southern Baptist volunteers.
Bangladeshi believers come from various religious backgrounds: In the 40 years since independence, Muslim imams have become church planters, Buddhist tribal leaders discovered heaven is for real and Hindu priests set aside their gods for the one true God.
Jibril Zaman*, a former imam, risked everything by sharing his testimony over a loudspeaker in his mosque. Thirty imams now call Jesus Lord because of Zaman. He’s received discipleship training from IMB workers and is putting it into practice.
Suraj Chakma*, partners with IMB workers to share the Gospel among the Chakmas, a Buddhist people group in Bangladesh. Suraj continues to share despite persecution from Buddhist monks in his area.
Mathura Boren Tripura* was the first person in his community of Tripura tribal people to believe. There are now 100 churches in his area. Among these tribes, there are second- and third-generation believers who are now sending out their own evangelists to share with other people groups.
Guarav Dutta*, a former Brahmin priest, has seen hundreds accept Christ through his witness. His vision is for 10 percent of Bangladesh’s population to be saved before he dies. He’s 58 years old.
Travis and Madison Strauder* are praying for a church planting movement among Muslims in Dhaka. The Strauders are IMB workers based in Dhaka and are focusing their ministry on Muslims.
Travis Strauder said historically many believers from the minority Hindu and Buddhist have been afraid to share with Muslims.
They are overcoming their fear, Strauder said, noting that believers from tribal people groups and from a Hindu background are stepping out of their comfort zone and sharing with their Muslim neighbors.
The Strauders are setting an example to follow in the church they attend. Most of the members of this church come from Christian families or from a Hindu background.
The church now does outreach in Muslim areas and members are sharing the Gospel with Muslim neighbors.
Strauder partners with Qahir Hamad*, a Muslim background believer and house church pastor, to reach Muslims in Dhaka. Strauder and Hamad are in the midst of a discipleship and church planning training for the 35 members of his house church.
“We’ve already seen 19 baptisms,” Strauder said. “Nineteen might not sound like a big number, but it’s significant for us because we haven’t seen anything like that since we’ve been here.”
Strauder and Hamad’s desire is to see churches start in the homes of the 35 house church members.
This December, Strauder, Hamad and other Christians in the nation will look back on the last 40 years of ministry. They are also looking forward to the next 40 years.
“It’s a hard thing to picture, but I believe that without a doubt Bangladesh could be a completely different place in 40 years. God is doing some great things now, people are coming to faith, people are sharing their faith,” Strauder said.
“In 40 years, I don’t think that we are going to say that Bangladesh is less than one-tenth of 1 percent Christian.”
*Names changed. Caroline Anderson is an International Mission Board journeyman writer based in Southeast Asia.