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Terror in Bangladesh

Bangladesh promotes itself as a “moderate, progressive and democratic Muslim country,” but a leading human rights activist from the South Asian nation says it is a land of terror for many of its Hindu, Buddhist and Christian citizens.

Rosaline Costa, director of Hotline Bangladesh, yesterday told correspondent Julia Duin that in the Bhola islands on the southern coast of the country, 98 percent of Hindu women interviewed had been raped by Muslim thugs.

A former nun, Miss Costa has won awards for her campaign a decade ago to abolish sweatshops that employed Bangladeshi children to make garments for U.S. clothing outlets. She has turned down offers to emigrate for her own safety, saying she prefers to stay in the land of her birth and monitor what she says is a rising tide of killings, maimings, beatings, land grabs, destruction of homes, vandalism, extortion and destruction of temples and churches.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the abuses in Bangladesh. The State Department’s latest human rights report criticized the government’s “poor human rights” record, but noted that the government “generally respected” religious freedom.

The State Department cited “reports of harassment of Hindus, including killings, rape, looting and torture” blamed on local gang leaders.

Miss Costa, however, said local police do little or nothing to investigate the attacks. Once she approached a moderate Muslim friend for help, who responded with incredulity.

“‘Are you mad?’” she said he asked her. “‘Do you think my head will stay on my body?’”

Bangladesh is a breeding ground for militant Islam, said Sitangshu Guha, a Hindu-American accompanying Miss Costa in her tour of the United States.

A spokesman for the Bangladesh Embassy could not be reached for comment yesterday, but the government has repeatedly denied news reports about Muslim terrorists organizing in Bangladesh.

Non-Muslims made up 33 percent of the country’s inhabitants in 1971, when Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, Miss Costa said. They are now 9.9 percent of the population. Thousands of people have fled to India, Japan and other countries, especially Britain, which had colonized the subcontinent for 200 years.

Religious attacks have increased since October 2001, when the Bangladesh National Party came to power in a coalition with hard-line Islamic parties, Miss Costa said.

Friday afternoons are the worst, she said. Miss Costa, who lives near one of the largest mosques in the capital, Dhaka, said angry Muslims, inflamed by mullahs at Friday services, pour out of the mosque, looking for any available Christian, Hindu or Buddhist on which to vent their fury. The situation is worse in rural areas, she said, where Muslim mobs have “ethnically cleansed” many areas of their inhabitants. Hindus are the most affected, she said, because they traditionally have owned the most land.

“Rape is a most useful tool to evict a family. Rape makes it impossible for a family to stay in the area,” she said, explaining that the female victims are frequently blamed for disgracing their families.

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