Catholic priest disappears in Bangladesh before Pope visit

Bangadeshi nuns offer prayers at a cemetery prior to a mass at the Holy Rosary church in Dhaka, on Nov 29.

DHAKA (AFP) - A Catholic priest has disappeared in Bangladesh, police said Wednesday (Nov 29), a day before Pope Francis starts a landmark visit to the Muslim-majority nation wracked by Islamist extremism.

Walter William Rosario, 40, is from the same village in northern Bangladesh where suspected Islamist extremists last year hacked a Catholic grocer to death as he opened his shop.

A major search has been launched for Rosario, who is also headmaster of a Catholic school in Natore district, after his family reported him missing, police said.

"He has been missing since late Monday. His mobile has been switched off," local police chief Biplob Bijoy Talukder told Agence France-Presse.

Gerves Rosario, the bishop of the nearby city of Rajshahi, said he believed the priest had been kidnapped and that Catholics in the region were deeply worried.

"He was organising for around 300 Catholics to travel to Dhaka to see the Pope and attend his holy mass. But his disappearance has marred their joy. They don't want to go to Dhaka anymore," said the bishop.

The family received a phone call from someone using Rosario's number to demand a ransom, but Talukder said police believed this was a hoax.

They have not ruled out the possibility he was abducted by Islamist extremists, who have carried out attacks on religious minorities in the region in the past four years.

Pope Francis arrives in Bangladesh Thursday (Nov 30) on the first visit to the country by the head of the Catholic Church in 31 years.

The trip will be dominated by the plight of more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled ethnic unrest in Myanmar and taken refuge in Bangladesh.

Christians, who make up less than 0.5 percent of Bangladesh's 160 million people, have in recent years faced attacks by Islamist radicals.

Since 2015 at least three Christians, including two converts from Islam, have been hacked to death in attacks blamed on the militant Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh.

In July last year militants from the same group stormed a Dhaka cafe and massacred 22 hostages including 18 foreigners in an attack claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group.

However, the government has denied the international militants' involvement and security forces have killed more than 70 alleged militants since the cafe attack.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.