Photo credit: Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk
By Bishop Declan Lang
Two years ago Ahmed Rajib Haider, a prominent atheist blogger was ambushed as he left his home in Dhaka and brutally murdered by a gang wielding machetes. The killing came against a backdrop of intimidation and attacks on people who had publicly repudiated or challenged religious belief.
Since then Bangladesh’s atheists have lived and died in fear. During 2015 at least five more were murdered. Avijit Roy, an author who wrote extensively on atheism and science, was hacked to death as he left a book fair with his wife. Weeks later Washiqur Rahman, an IT manager who blogged in his spare time, was stabbed in broad daylight. In the Northern city of Sylhet Ananta Bijoy Das was killed on his way to work, shortly after being invited to address a high profile press freedom event in Europe.
As demands grew for the Bangladeshi government to act, gangs burst into the home of blogger Niloy Chakrabarti and the office of publisher Faisal Abedin Deepan, killing them both in the same horrific manner. All of the men had been named on lists of prominent atheists circulated by extremist groups and most had already received death threats. Several other high profile atheists narrowly escaped attacks and dozens fled the country.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh publicly denounced the murders as attacks on religious tolerance and freedom of expression, strongly criticising the government’s failure to offer protection for those whose lives were at risk. Their intervention took some by surprise, but it is in fact a powerful demonstration of the stand that we are called to take whenever people are persecuted for their beliefs.
Across the world Christians can be found playing a central role in defence of other faith communities, from the Yazidis in Northern Iraq who face unspeakable atrocities at the hands of Daesh, to Muslim minorities in parts of South East Asia who suffer discrimination and hostility from Buddhist fundamentalists. However our compassion must never be limited only to people of faith.
The persecution of atheists is a grave violation of human dignity throughout the world. In Saudi Arabia, where “calling for atheist thought in any form” is defined as an act of terrorism, writers have been flogged after publicly promoting humanist or secularist ideas. Most recently the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to eight years in prison and eight hundred lashes, for publishing work considered to be atheistic.