Bangladesh’s high court rejected a petition by secular activists to scrap Islam’s status as the state religion in the wake of nationwide protests by hardline Islamist groups.
A special bench of three judges threw out the petition within moments of opening the case and without allowing any testimony.
The petition, which was first launched 28 years ago, has triggered countrywide protests by Islamist groups in the impoverished nation.
“We are saddened (at the ruling). It’s a sad day for the minorities of Bangladesh,” said Subrata Chowdhury, who represented the secular activists in the case.
The court did not allow the petitioners to state their case or present any arguments, he said. “The judges simply said the rule is discharged.”
Bangladesh was declared officially secular after the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan which created the nation from what was previously East Pakistan.
But in 1988 the then-military ruler, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, elevated Islam to the state religion in an attempt to consolidate power
Secularists have argued for decades that Islam’s status as the state religion conflicts with Bangladesh’s secular charter and discriminates against non-Muslims.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought back secularism as a pillar of the constitution, but promised it would not ratify any laws that go against the central tenets of Islam.
The country’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, responded to the court’s decision by withdrawing a call for a nationwide strike. It described the decision as a “victory of 160 million people”.
“The people will never accept any government move to remove Islam as the state religion from the constitution in an effort to please a handful of anti-religion persons,” the Jamaat had said earlier.
More than 90 percent of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim, with Hindus and Buddhists the main minorities.
Constitutional changes dating back over three decades have put Bangladesh in the unusual position of being officially secular while still having Islam as a state religion.