ISLAMIC extremism is on the rise in Bangladesh as the number of defiant Christians soars.
Some 22 people were killed in a deadly attack on a cafe in Dhaka on July 1 with the Government blaming local homegrown militants despite Islamic State (ISIS) reportedly claiming responsibility.
Local pastors say the attack is the latest in a string of targeted killings which have left Christians and religious minorities fearing for their lives.
The attack took place in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone, Gulshan, causing widespread fear and concern about the rise in Islamic extremism in the country.
A worker for Christian advocacy charity Open Doors said: “Survivors of the attack said the killers made their hostages recite verses from the Koran.
“Those who could were spared, while those unable to were killed.
“This latest attack, however, is the first concerted attack on foreigners, marking a major escalation in a campaign by militants.”
So far, it’s not clear if the plot was organised by ISIS in Syria, or developed locally in Bangladesh. Over the last few years, Open Doors’ World Watch researchers have been observing the rise of extremism and terrorism against minorities in Bangladesh, including Christians.
Of the country’s 162million, 89 per cent population are Muslim with just 828,000 Christians.
Believers have been targeted for their faith on numerous occasions by extremist groups – on June 5, a 72-year-old Christian was murdered in the village of Bonpara, and in March, Christian evangelist Habib Alam was killed by members of ISIS.
There have also been reports of banned Islamist groups threatening to kill people who do not conform to their rules which include having a copy of the Koran, not allowing women to work and removing Christian sacred images from shops.
Thomas Muller, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, warned: “The increasingly volatile situation remains dangerous for the Christian minority.”
But despite the threat the Christian community is growing in size.
Pastor Faruk al Ahmed, a believer from a Muslim background, has been preaching the gospel in Kurigram in northern Bangladesh since the mid-1990s.
He said: ”When I began my ministry in Kurigram, there was only one traditional Christian family and one Muslim background family. Now, almost 1,500 believers from Muslim backgrounds are glorifying God in this area.”
But these Christians are beginning to attract danger from Islamist terrorists.
Since November 2015, dozens of Christian pastors in Bangladesh have received death threats from extremists – including recently murdered Habib Alam, who was Pastor Faruk’s first convert.
Pastor Faruk said: ”Persecution will come more but the believers and I are ready to face it.”
Advocacy charities are now working with Christians and religious minorities in the Islamic country to provide support.
Secular bloggers have also been targeted as well as those who have spoken out about the dangers of fundamentalism.
A spokeswoman for the South Asia Team for Christian Solidarity Worldwide said: “I think even before the attack July 1, people were scared.