DHAKA: Bangladesh's high court on Monday rejected a petition by secular activists to scrap Islam's status as the state religion, a lawyer said.

"We are saddened (at the ruling)," said Subrata Chowdhury, who represented the secular activists in the case.

The court was hearing a writ petition, initially filed 28 years ago, which challenged the constitutional amendment that gave ‘Islam’ status of the state’s religion.

The move to make Islam the state religion had come under military ruler HM Ershad, who had inserted a section in the eighth amendment to the constitution, making Islam Bangladesh’s state religion on June 9, 1988. The amendment was immediately challenged through a writ petition.

The court heard the petition for the first time in June 2011 and sought an explanation from the government on why the part of the eighth amendment to the constitution – that had made Islam the state religion – should not be annulled.

While the government did not respond to the court’s query, it went on to maintain Islam as the state religion via the 15th constitutional amendment, which also reinstated ‘secularism’ as a founding principle of the state.

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought back secularism as a pillar of the constitution, but promised it would not ratify any laws that go against the central tenets of the religion.

Constitutional changes dating back over three decades have put Bangladesh in the unusual position of being officially secular while still having Islam as a state religion.

More than 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, with Hindus and Buddhists the main minorities.

Thousands on Friday staged protests across Bangladesh against the court hearing on scrapping the state religion of the Muslim-majority nation.

Some 7,000 activists took to the streets of capital Dhaka after Friday prayers, chanting anti-government slogans and holding banners against the controversial High Court hearing.

Demonstrations were carried out in nearly all the major cities of the country including Sylhet and Barisal, with several top leaders of Hefazat threatening violence if the court moves to drop Islam as the official state religion.

The court hearing of the petition came amidst a crackdown by the Bangladesh government against ‘militants and extremists’ behind the ‘Islamist violence’ that has recently gripped the country – liberal activists, members of minority Muslim sects and other religious groups have been targeted in multiple attacks.

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