Dhaka (AsiaNews) – In Dhaka, in the district of Mirpur-2, there is a veritable “oasis of peace for children”. It is the parish of Mary Queen of the Apostles, founded and run by the PIME missionaries (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). On the opposite side of the street stands the school of Saint Teresa, where 495 children, mostly Muslims, study. The two places are a concrete example of missionary witness and religious harmony, where children of different faiths study and play together, learning to love and respect each other as brothers and sisters.
The parish was born from the work of Fr. Gianantonio Baio, then rector of the Pime House of the capital, who bought land in 1994 and gave it to the church. Instead the school was founded 10 years ago on the initiative of Fr. Gianpaolo Gualzetti. The Mirpur-2 neighborhood is a maze of dusty, semi-asphalted streets, with stalls full of spices, food and various utensils on both sides of the road.
In the midst of all this confusion, the Catholic mission, where the hawkers shouts, the car horns and the rickshaw bells are a distant sound. AsiaNews visited Fr. Quirico Martinelli, the parish priest, who immediately showed us the small garden adjacent to the parish. Here two swings and a slide are available for children to play. All around, beyond the walls protected by barbed wire, 10-storey buildings rise up against each other. Fr. Quirico says: “In a neighborhood like this it is not common to have a garden for children. Many have suggested I sell the land. Once a gentleman told me: ‘Father, why does not he sell it? You could earn a lot of money! ” I replied: ‘But then where would the children play?’. And he did not understand, he looked at me with a lost look, amazed at the fact that the children had the right to play “.
Inside the church, where the classic wooden benches for the faithful are replaced by carpets and mats, it is all a work of decorations. The missionary reports: “We are preparing the altar for Advent. On the front, we placed four candles cut out of polystyrene (corresponding to the Sundays of Advent), to which we will add the flame every Sunday, to symbolize the passing time”.
On the back of the parish, a three-storey building houses a youth hostel, “which we can call aspiring PIME seminarians. In all there are 12, and they are preparing for a journey of vocation “. In addition to the hostel, the facility serves as “shelter for special sick people who come to Dhaka to treat serious disorders and undergo risky operations that are not carried out elsewhere in the country”.
The Saint Teresa school is a five-story building. Fr. Martinelli explains that “the first three are destined to the school, where children from pre-school (kindergarten) up to the eighth grade study. On the fourth floor live the nuns of the Luigine di Alba Order, who run the structure. The top floor instead is used as a hostel for working girls, who come to Dhaka in search of a job, but at the beginning do not know where to go to reside. Here they find a safe place for the initial period, then they move elsewhere “. Eva Uzinia Barman, 22, is one of them. She comes from the diocese of Dinajpur (in the north of Bangladesh) and her father is a village catechist. “One day I want to become a nun,” she tells AsiaNews. “All right, but first you have to finish your studies”, replies Fr. Quirico. “I will be what God wants of me,” says the young woman.
The structure also houses a recovery and rehabilitation center for the disabled. The missionary reports that “every day 20 come from all over the city. The assistants take care of them, helping them draw, write and play. They hang some of their drawings on the notice board, on the ground floor of the building “.
Walking around the classrooms we meet the teachers: 16 women and a man. They tell us that “today [December 2] is an important day for children, because they took the end of year exams. They are all awaiting their results “. Sr. Sonali Dofanar, the principal, reports that 495 students are enrolled in the institute, of which 315 are Muslims, 75 Hindus and the remaining Christians. The teachers add that “the classes are mixed. Males and females of various confessions study together. They are separated only during religion classes, during which everyone learns the teachings of their faith “. “Even parents respect and collaborate with educational institutions. This is a true example of inter-religious harmony “.
As we are about to leave, some children come to meet us and kneel before the priest. Then they touch both feet and touch their hands on their heads. “In a symbolic way, they carry the dust from my shoes to their heads. For them it is a blessing “, he explains. One of the girls moves from Fr. Quirico and repeats the same gesture before the AsiaNews correspondent. “Now they believe that you will bring him luck”, reports the missionary.