Bangladesh retains Islam as state religion

Dhaka, Bangladesh - Bangladesh's government will retain Islam as the country's official state religion despite pledges by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to restore the state's secular character, a minister said Tuesday.

Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of 150 million, was declared a secular republic in 1972 but a series of constitutional amendments by two military dictators abandoned the principle and made Islam the state religion in 1988.

Since coming to power two years ago, Hasina has taken steps to restore secularism, but a package of constitutional amendments approved by her cabinet Monday stopped short of full reform.

"Islam will remain the state religion," Law Minister Shafiq Ahmed told AFP, adding that Bangladeshi Hindus, Buddhists and Christians would be allowed to practice their religions freely.

The decision has been condemned by some of Hasina's Awami League's left-wing coalition partners and an influential joint forum of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, who say it is a breach of trust.

According to the mass-circulation Kaler Kantha daily newspaper, two senior cabinet ministers also argued against the proposal, but were overruled.

"It will create legal and political problems -- it makes it hard to understand, ideologically, the Bangladeshi state," said Ataur Rahman, a Dhaka-based politics professor who teaches at the US's George Mason University.