The Christian minority in the mostly Muslim nation of Bangladesh is growing rapidly despite the threats from Islamic leaders and extremist groups, according to a non-profit organization that runs several missions in the country.
Jim Jacobson, the president of Christian Freedom International (CFI), recently went on a fact-finding trip to Bangladesh to interview pastors, street evangelists, missionaries and converts to Christianity.
Those he interviewed said that the growth of Christianity has become a cause of concern for the country's Muslim majority, and the persecution against the Christian church has increased as a result.
Official estimates indicate that less than one percent of the country's population of over 156 million are Christians. About 89 percent are Muslims while 10 percent identify as Hindi.
However, the official reports only count the "traditional Christians," such as those who are born into the faith and attend government-approved churches. Those who converted from Islam to Christianity have not been counted, and no surveys have been made, according to CFI.
CFI noted that there is a consensus among "converts" claiming that Christians make up at least 10 percent of the country's population. Some indigenous evangelists have asserted that Bangladesh will become a Christian nation within their lifetimes.
Pastor Khaleque, 60, a former Muslim who works as a street pastor among the hill tribes in the northern part of the country, told CFI that over 20,000 Muslims have converted to Christianity in the past 12 months.
He said that the conversions have become a real problem for Muslims. The street pastor has been beaten several times, and he has been forced to pay bribes to the police in order to carry on with his work.
Pastor Rafiqul Islam, who now goes by the name Rafiqul, said that he was disowned by his family, and his businesses were taken away from him after his conversion. He was beaten when two Imams caught him talking about Christianity in the market.
His sons were able to ransom him only after they agreed to force him to return to Islam. After they failed to reconvert the pastor, they beat their father nearly to death and took all of his possessions.
Rafiqul said that he has seen more than 700 Muslims convert to Christianity in his village in the past 24 months.
"Many Muslims are converting. Mostly in the rural areas," he told CFI. "More people are converting every day. Although persecuted, we are preaching the Good News," he added.
Bangladesh is listed in the Open Doors World Watch List as the 26th country where Christians experience the most persecution. The country does not have blasphemy laws or an anti-conversion bill, but Christians are facing more and more restrictions and challenges due to pressure from radical Islamic groups, local religious leaders and families.