Estema, the “assembly” at Tongi

One of the brothers who has been living in Bangladesh for years wrote recently: “This morning I returned home full of impressions of the very big annual meeting of Muslims called the ‘Estema’ (which means ‘assembly’).

Since my previous visits to the Estema everything has become bigger and bigger. Now 2 million people had gathered at Tongi, near Dhaka, and for the final prayer there were more than 3 million. The organisation was very well done, by volunteers. At the centre of everything there was a huge tent – certainly the biggest tent in the world – which was 2 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide. This was where people slept and where they prayed. Even this was not enough. People were sleeping all over: on the edge of the roads, on the banks of the nearby river Turag, in the station. This time I had come with two Muslim friends from Mymensingh. We found it hard to make our way in the big tent. Finally we found a tiny empty place. The welcome was very generous. Here the stranger is generally respected. The night was very short: people stayed up until 1am and were already getting up at 4.30am to prepare for the first prayer. A completely unknown neighbour shared with us the huge blanket that he had brought. The meeting lasted for three full days; I was only able to stay for one day.

I was probably the only Christian present in this enormous crowd. The people found it very beautiful to have a Christian among them. I was profoundly moved by the simple and fervent faith of these people. They had certainly not come looking for comfort as everything was ultra simple: we were sleeping on mats on the ground; the meals were prepared outside the tent, thus some distance away. The people organised themselves into groups of between 25 and 50. Everything had to be brought: wood, pans, plates, etc.

In the morning the first prayer, at 5.30, was really very beautiful. They took the time to get themselves into lines – which meant completely reorganising the space where everyone had slept. Afterwards there were 5 to 10 minutes of silence and then, suddenly, the prayer began. Everyone in the completely straight lines, two kilometres long, began to make the same movements. Everyone said the same words.

I was the only person to remain seated – but everyone was pleased that I was there. Sure enough, after the prayer, some learned people explained to me, very gently and delicately, that they too accept the truth of biblical revelations, but that now there are subsequent and definitive revelations of the last prophet, which I must accept. I replied that I respected their faith and felt close to them, but that I believe deeply in the teaching of Jesus.

I had to leave before the final prayer. All the roads leading to the site of the Estema were completely filled by tens of thousands of people walking towards the site of the prayer.

Close by, on the river, I counted fifty or so boats, full of people hastening towards the prayer. The roads were so full of people that I still found many people en route to the prayer, even 15 kilometres away from Tongi. They implore Allah to give peace to the world and ask for his blessing on the great Muslim community.

The next day I found myself in a train with crowds of pilgrims. Everyone was very enthusiastic. Everything had gone well. They were pleased that so many people had come from other countries (15 to 20,000 from 70 different countries had taken part). The roof of the train was also completely full of people. To forget the risks, the people repeat the name of Allah.

What a powerful experience to have made this pilgrimage with all these pious people (one could call them “pietists”): they keep themselves far from politics.”

Printed from: - 26 May 2020
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