Country reports on the LDS Church around the world from a landmark almanac. Includes detailed analysis of history, context, culture, needs, challenges and opportunities for church growth.
By David Stewart and Matt Martinich
Area: 143,998 square km. Nearly completely surrounded by India, Bangladesh also borders Burma and the Bay of Bengal where the Ganges, Jamuna, and Meghna Rivers empty into the ocean. Bangladesh suffers from severe flooding due to monsoon rains which typically inundate a third of the country annually. The large population confined to a small geographic area prone to flooding creates vulnerability to loss of life and property. Mangroves line the coastal waters and much of the interior was deforested to provide space for farming and animal husbandry. There are some hills to the southwest; otherwise low-laying plains dominate the terrain. No other country with over 10 million people has as high as a population density. Bangladesh is divided into six administrative divisions.
Population: 156,050,883 (July 2009)
Annual Growth Rate: 1.292% (2009)
Fertility Rate: 2.74 children born per woman (2009)
Life Expectancy: male 57.57, female 63.03 (2009)
Nearly the entire population is Bengali. Other ethnic groups include tribal groups and non-Bengali Muslims such as Burmese, Garo, Assamese, and Santhals. Many of the minority groups live on the borders of Bangladesh with India and Burma.
Languages: Bengali (72%), Chittagonian (8%), Rangpuri (7%), Sylheti (5%), other (8%). Bengali is the official language and English is spoken by the well educated. Languages with over one million speakers include Bengali (110 million), Chittagonian (13 million), Rangpuri (10 million), and Sylheti (7 million).
Literacy: 47.9% (2001)
Various Indian empires periodically included Bangladesh before European exploration. In the 16th century, Europeans established trading posts in the region. The British East India Company took control of Bangladesh in the 18th century. In 1947, the United Kingdom divided the Indian subcontinent based on religious demography between Hindus and Muslims to create India and Pakistan, the latter including Bangladesh, known as East Bengal, and latter East Pakistan. Due to geographic isolation from West Pakistan and marginalization of Bengalis by the government, East Pakistan seceded and declared independence under the name Bangladesh in 1971. Inefficient and corrupt government limited economic growth resulted in the military backing a temporary regime takeover to eradicate corruption from government over the long-term in the late 2000s. Massive flooding from strong monsoon rains occurred in 1998 resulting in the deaths of thousands, tens of millions left homeless, and widespread destruction of property.
Bangladesh shares many cultural similarities with the Indian state of West Bengal with cuisine, food, and language. Men typically wear Western style clothing whereas women were traditional dress. Muslim and Hindu holidays are widely practiced. Cricket is the most popular sport. Polygamy is practiced by few Hindus and Muslims but not socially acceptable. Women have fewer rights than men in issues such as divorce.
GDP per capita: $1,500 (2008) [3.2% of US]
Human Development Index: 0.543
Corruption Index: 2.1
Although Bangladesh has a large population capable of sustaining a large economy, two-thirds of the workforce labors in agriculture. Services amount to half of the GDP yet only 11% of the world’s eighth largest workforce labors in this sector. Around half of the population lives below the poverty line. In addition to agricultural products, textiles also fuel the economy. Primary agriculture goods include rice, jute, tea, and wheat whereas primary industries process these goods or make textiles and clothing. The largest export partners include the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. Most imports arrive from China, India and Kuwait. Undeveloped natural gas reserves may fuel greater economic growth in the industrial sector. Government management has struggled to properly face the issues of a poor, small, very densely population country in developing the economy. Urban areas have driven most of the economic growth experienced since independence. Current utilities cannot meet the demands of the population, especially for electricity.
Bangladesh ranks among one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but has seen some improvement in the past few years. Corruption is still widespread and limits economic progress. Most regard the police as the most corrupt division of government, followed by customs. Many have to pay a bribe to secure employment. Government has done little to address corruption issues.
Denominations Members Congregations
Seventh-Day Adventists 29,757 114
Jehovah’s Witnesses 120 3
Latter-Day Saints 100 1
Government declares Islam as the state religion. Hindu, Christian and Buddhist minorities also practice in Bangladesh. Many religious minorities are also ethnic minorities. Islam influences many aspects of society. Some tensions between Muslims and religious minority groups occur, especially Hindus. Most Christians are Catholic. Christian churches experience slow to modest growth.
The constitution declares Bangladesh as an Islamic state. All religions have the right to identify, practice and proselyte according to law and public order. Local authorities often object to the conversion of Muslims. Missionaries usually experience delays in obtaining visas. Government has become more tolerant of religious minorities and protecting their rights to practice their religions.
Dhaka, Chattagam, Khulna, Rajshahi, Maimansingh, Tungi, Komilla, Silhat, Rangpur, Barisal, Narsingdi, Narayanganj, Bogora, Jessor, Brahman Bariya, Dinajpur, Pabna, Nawabganj, Tangayal, Jamalpur, Naugaon, Sirajganj, Gazipur, Chandpur, Begamganj, Kushtiya, Chuadanga, Koks Bazar, Noakhali, Satkhira.
One of the 30 largest cities has a Church congregation. 10% of the national population lives in cities with over 100,000 inhabitants.
LDS Membership: 100 + (2009)
The first members living in Bangladesh were expatriates primarily from Canada on government assignment. One Canadian member family introduced the Church to their cook and his family, who later became the first Bangladeshis to join the Church in Bangladesh. In 1993, the first local members served as missionaries. By mid-1993 there were about 30 members, increasing to 40 later that year. Most members were expatriates. Little local membership growth occurred the following 15 years possible a result of many foreign members leaving Bangladesh. Local members began to join the Church again more regularly in late 2008, with three convert baptisms that year. As of late 2009 the Church was not recognized by the government. Expatriate members still met and lead the branch.
The Church organized its first group in the 1980s. The first branch was created in March 1992. The Singapore Mission administered Bangladesh until the creation of the India New Delhi Mission in late 2007. No missionaries served in the country in late 2009. The India New Delhi mission president and his assistants traveled frequently to Bangladesh to met with local leaders and perform baptisms in 2009.
Activity and Retention
Local members are responsible for finding and fellowshipping new converts, who are taught and baptized by the mission president and his assistants. The branch has a small number of members who attend, but continue to grow in number. Active membership is likely around 50.
Languages with LDS Scripture: English, Bengali
A translation of the Book of Mormon selections in Bengali was published in 1985 in New Delhi, India. The Church increased emphasis on translating materials into Bengali in 1993 by storing the Bengali script in computers at Church headquarters. The full Book of Mormon is still unavailable in Bengali, but additional language materials have been translated, including Gospel Principles, The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony, and the Articles of Faith.
The Dhaka Branch received its first permanent building in May 2009.
Health and Safety
Health issues include threats typical of poorer, tropical nations such as hepatitis, typhoid, malaria, and rabies. HIV/AIDS is estimated to infect less than 0.1% of Bangladeshis. Violence directed towards religious minorities from intolerant Muslims may pose safety threats to missionaries and converts.
Humanitarian and Development Work
The Church provided aid during flooding caused by a cyclone in 1991. Latter-Day Saint charities operated literacy programs in the late 1990s. German members collected 7,500 Euros to donate to impoverished Bangladeshi children. Following the destruction of Cyclone Sidr in 2007, the Church sent additional aid.
Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects
The Church has yet to take greater advantage of the degree of religious freedom offered by a predominantly Muslim country to religious minorities. Rarely do Islamic states offer rights to Christians that include proselytism. Other nations with more restrictions on religious freedom and proselytism have an established Church missionary presence. Rampant corruption, especially with law enforcement, may be a concern which has limited missionary outreach. Difficulties in obtaining foreign missionary visas challenge future outreach prospects.
Cultural barriers between Bangladesh and Church teachings do not appear to have limited the Church’s growth and development. The treatment and position of women in society may create some cultural challenges in Bangladeshi members understanding Church teachings on the roles and treatment of men and women. Islamic and Hindu holidays may interrupt future proselytism as in India and other nations Christians become a frequent target of persecution and violence. Development of self-reliance and economic skills among members and the population is challenging due to poor living conditions and literacy levels. Humanitarian projects aiming to address these challenges may assist in a greater establishment of the Church in the long term through establishing a positive reputation and providing service.
The entire population of Bangladesh is unreached by the Church with the exception of the few individuals who have been brought into the Church my local members. The Church faces logistical challenges in opening the seventh most populous nation in the world. If the Church had mission outreach for the entire population of Dhaka, 96% of the national population would still remain unreached.
Limited mission outreach has resulted from the jurisdiction resting under the Singapore Mission prior to late 2007. Since the creation of the India New Delhi Mission increased mission outreach and recurring visits of leaders and missionaries have occurred.
Tremendous fulltime missionary manpower would be required to open most of the country to missionary work using fulltime missionaries. The Philippines and Mexico have 15 and 21 missions, respectively, with much smaller populations. Member missionary participating among local members and recruitment of native missionaries of the most realistic prospects for future outreach into unreached cities and rural areas; vision and mentoring will be needed to achieve these purposes.
Member Activity and Convert Retention
Convert retention and member activity appear high, despite limited mission outreach. Activity appears high at least in part due to growth mediated primarily by local members, lengthy periods of preparation of prospective converts, and the lack of pressure for converts to be baptized quickly by foreign missionaries. Foreign members and periodic missionary visits help to regulate the Church and provide training.
Ethnic Issues and Integration
Few challenges face the Church with ethnic integration due to the homogeneity of the population. Minority ethnic groups with higher percentages of Christians may be more receptive to the Church. Challenges may arise in meeting the needs of converts with differing religious and cultural backgrounds in the same congregation.
The majority of the population speaks Bengali, which already has limited scripture and Church materials translated. Additional materials will likely become available as membership continues to grow. Gospel materials are likely to be translated into Chittagonian, Rangpuri, and Sylheti only when significant membership growth occurs where these minority languages are spoken.
The Church appears to struggle in developing self-sustaining Bangladeshi leadership. In May 2009, the branch president of the Dhaka Branch was an expatriate from Sweden. Although the first Bangladeshi missionary served in the early 1990s, very few local members have served missions. Bangladeshi leaders will be crucial to opening additional large cities and introducing the Gospel to rural communities. Little progress will likely occur until a greater number of men join the Church, remain active, and faithfully hold leadership positions.
Bangladesh belongs to the Hong Kong China Temple District. Temple trips likely do not occur from the Dhaka Branch as the branch has a small membership, travel to the temple is difficult, and seasoned members are few.
Nations separated by large distances from mission headquarters which have a small Church membership relative to their population sizes experience greater membership growth than Bangladesh. Nepal had its first congregation organized around the same time as Bangladesh, yet has over 100 attending meetings with around a dozen young men serving missions from the branch. Laos had its first congregation organized in the early 2000s and had around 75 active members in late 2009. Pakistan had several thousand members in two districts and 10 branches.
Other Christian denominations have taken advantage of the religious freedom and proselytism. Many Christian churches add thousands of converts a year and also have outreach outside of the largest cities. Christians struggle with increasing national outreach. Seventh-Day Adventists have addressed some of these concerns through opening church schools and providing humanitarian relief. The LDS Church may experience greater growth through the opening of schools, hospitals, and humanitarian relief.
More frequent missionary visits in the late 2000s may provide for increased local leadership capable of sustaining larger numbers of convert baptisms without sacrificing high retention. Bangladeshi members who join the Church in other nations may return to their homeland and help build up the Church. A senior missionary couple assisting with leadership development and humanitarian aid may be assigned.