Young Bangladeshi refugee Luke Laltu came to Australia believing he would be free to practise his newfound faith in Christianity.
Little did he know that gaining his religious freedom would also entail the loss of his physical freedom.
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Since arriving at Christmas Island by boat in 2012, Luke has been held in immigration detention with little prospect of ever being settled into the Australian community.
And yet, he says, he has nowhere to go back to. No one who wants him.
Born in 1988 in southern Bangladesh, Luke doesn’t remember his biological parents, who abandoned him during his childhood. He was subsequently adopted by a Muslim family, but Luke says he never said the Muslim prayers.
Luke’s troubles began when he fell in love with a Christian girl.
His troubles began when he fell in love with a Christian girl who used to visit his foster father’s shop in the village market, where he worked as a shopkeeper.
“This girl, Tania, she used to walk by and stop by in our shop to look at stuff and buy things and we got to talk,” he tells Eternity through a Bengali translator.
For about three months they kept their relationship secret, but as soon as Tania’s family found out about it “they were enraged,” he says.
The family called on Tania’s brother Bilal, who was studying in the capital, Dhaka, to come and deal with the situation.
“He came down to the village, found me and then beat me up and threatened me that I was not to see his sister ever again,” says Luke.
When Luke refused to stop seeing Tania, Bilal came with a group of friends to their village market shop and ransacked it.
“Then he didn’t stop there – he went to our home with his group of friends and started ransacking our home as well, at which point my foster father, in order to save himself, started telling Bilal that I’m not his birth child, I’m a foster child and he’s not responsible for my actions,” Luke recalls.
After this, Bilal gathered together the village elders and imams from the local mosque to hold a village court to adjudicate on the matter.
They convened a Shalish, or village court, which ruled that Luke was an apostate for having an illegitimate relationship with a Christian woman and ordered him to leave the village and never to come back. He was then beaten up by the mob supporting Bilal and handed over to the local police, who kept him detained for a month while torturing him in custody.
“The mob also threatened me if I ever came back to the village, I would face dire consequences,” Luke says.
“I was devastated. I was so upset I thought I was going to go insane. When I was beaten up and asked to leave the vicinity, my foster parents also told me, ‘Please don’t come back because if you do, the local mob and the village imams will come and harm us too, so if you do not want us to be harmed, never come back again.’
“I felt very unloved and I felt that if my birth parents were alive, or I got to know them, they wouldn’t have disowned me.”
As a declared apostate, Luke’s apostasy was punishable by death under sharia law.
Upon his release from jail, Luke moved from place to place in fear of persecution from Tania’s family. As a declared apostate, his apostasy was punishable by death under sharia law. Bangladesh is an overwhelmingly Muslim majority country – 90 per cent Muslim, 9 per cent Hindu and just 0.3 per cent Christian, according to a 2011 census.
In October 2010, he managed to escape Bangladesh by boat and went to Malaysia. From there he made his way by boat to Indonesia in October 2012. He did not feel safe in either of these Muslim majority countries, with his history as an apostate of Islam.
He arrived on Christmas Island on November 13, 2012, and has been in Australian immigration detention ever since.
Under Tania’s influence, Luke had been attracted to Christianity long before coming to Australia, but in Australia his interest has blossomed into dedicated faith and devotion.
“I got to know from Tania that Jesus will be there for us when nobody else is there,” Luke says.
“Everybody else can disown us or drive us away or not be there for us, but Jesus in his infinite love and mercy is always there for a person that nobody else wants to be with or look after.
“I feel that divine love within me – that’s the thing that keeps me going in these very difficult situations.”
In 2017, while in detention in Western Australia, Luke decided to be baptised into his new faith.
“Although I grew up in a foster Muslim family, I did not pray the Muslim prayers in Bangladesh and when I lived briefly in Malaysia and Indonesia I also didn’t pray the Muslim prayers, but deep inside I always felt the pull for faith,” he explains.
“When I really started looking into it, and coming to Australia, I found the grace of Jesus and I have decided that I would hold on to it for the rest of my life. If I will stay in Australia and be a follower of Jesus, I will stick by it for the rest of my life. That’s why I decided to get myself baptised and formally surrender to my faith.
“I was already declared an apostate back home, and even in Malaysia and Indonesia I did not identify myself as Muslim, and I always was an outsider. More and more, I started thinking, ‘If I want to live a life educating myself into faith in Jesus I will need to go somewhere I can freely express and practise my faith without any fear.’”
Luke boarded a boat for Australia after a friend of a friend suggested to him that he would have the freedom to practise the faith that he was aspiring to here, but without any idea that he would end up in detention. “I had no clue,” he says.
“In my effort to understand the Bible better, I tried to learn English as much as I can.”
“It’s been very difficult – it’s not easy at all. I’ve been on medication for a long time now dealing with anxiety and depression, but then my faith has been helping me to heal and remain strong,” he says.
“I struggled with the language barrier because I’m not very good at English, but then in my effort to understand the Bible better, I tried to learn English as much as I can. I also listen to the Father who comes to the detention centre – I talk to him, I ask him to tell me more about Christian values and the story of Jesus. Also, there is a Brother that we have here in the detention centre who can speak Bengali, so I seek his help to try and explain to me some of the phrases from the Bible.”
Luke says he is inspired by Jesus’ words of charity in the Bible, “like if you have one piece of clothing and a second one, give it to the poor, and if you give to someone never ask to get back.”
“And Jesus also gives me hope because that story where the fisherman was trying to catch fish all night but couldn’t get any and then Jesus said ‘try one more time’ and he could catch a lot of fish in one go. And if Jesus’s grace is there, I’m sure any miracle is possible.
“I believe that if you have the love of Jesus in your heart, then whatever you desire in your life will eventually come to you.”
“He doesn’t have anyone or anywhere to go back to and he would really like to practise and dedicate himself to his Christian faith.” – Zaki Omar, senior lawyer, Human Rights for All
Zaki Omar, senior lawyer at Human Rights for All, says Luke’s fate is in the hands of the Department of Home Affairs, as are all others who have arrived in Australia by boat.
“They don’t have any past convictions of any nature, so these people are not any threat to the Australian community. So they can really be allowed to be in the community on a bridging visa pending the determination of their final protection visa,” he says.
“We are hopeful, but so far it’s not been very encouraging from the department side. I think in the refugee legal community, more weight should be given to people who are converting to Christianity and, as a result, to what kind of persecution they might encounter being deported to their country of origin.
“I think that advocacy should gain more momentum and engagement with the government – more than it is right now.
“He doesn’t have anyone or anywhere to go back to and he would really like to practise and dedicate himself to his Christian faith. And he believes if the Australian society and community is welcoming towards him, he can really look forward to starting to new life in his faith and devotion.”