Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News

Somalia’s militant group pursues Christians into Kenya


Somalia’s militant group al Shabaab is no longer confining its agenda to the country’s borders. They are now spreading into neighboring countries. There will not be a rescue coming from the Somali government, reports MNN.

Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs says the peacekeeping help that Somalia is getting is hampered by the internal anarchy. "How do you provide support to a country that is basically a failed state, where there is chaos on the ground? "

A "failed state" describes a country with a fractured social and political structure. Nettleton notes, "Really, there is no authority structure. There is no government body that really has power to enforce their will on the country." Sadly, Somalia has been leading the Failed States Index for three years’ running.

The conflict is now extending into Kenya. One reason might be al Shabaab’s intent to eradicate Christianity and create a Muslim state. Nettleton explains. "We heard a report that al Shabaab literally had a list of Christians that they were seeking."

Since al Shabaab is hunting believers, they are fleeing. "There are Christians who have had to leave Somalia who are in some of these refugee camps in surrounding nations. As the al Shabaab philosophy spreads into those camps, those Christians are put directly at risk." For example: Kenya.

Despite the oppression, Nettleton says the Gospel can’t be discounted. There is still a remnant church, albeit deep underground.

Voice of the Martyrs has found a way to let them know they’re not forgotten. "It’s a challenge to find Christians, it’s a challenge to support them. We have provided some help to the families of martyrs in Somalia."

While the situation seems hopeless, there is one avenue that surpasses the political venues. "The most significant thing that we can do is to pray for the country of Somalia, to pray especially for our Christian brothers and sisters there."

Somalia is ranked fourth on the Open Doors World Watch list of countries that are noted for their persecution of Christians.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Anglican leaders around globe decry ordination of lesbian bishop


In response to an openly gay woman being ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church on Saturday, Anglican leaders from around the world decried the action as “gravely concerning and wrong,” with some adding that the move has “hurt and alienated” many within the Episcopal community, reports Catholic News Agency.

Fifty-five year-old Mary Glasspool, an openly parterned lesbian, was ordained a bishop at Long Beach arena on May 15. Some 3,000 people attended the ceremony which featured a procession with liturgical dancers in bright colored outfits, costumed dragons and drums, according to Virtue Online.

This recent move by the Episcopal church in the U.S. has caused tremendous controversy within the global Anglican church, prompting Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to issue a statement of caution when the announcement of Glasspool’s ordination was first made last year. He urged church leaders at the time to consider the “implications and consequences of this decision.” Archbishop Williams wrote in March that the Episcopal leaders’ later confirmation of Glasspool’s election as bishop-suffragen was “regrettable.”

Several world leaders within the Anglican community denounced Saturday’s ordination.

“The decision of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America to consecrate as a bishop a woman in a sexually active lesbian relationship is gravely concerning and wrong,” said Rev. Dr. H. William Godfrey, bishop of the the Anglican Church of Peru on May 15.

“It is impossible,” he added, “to know by what authority the Episcopal Church is taking this action. It is disobedient to the Word of God, to the teaching of the Church, and deeply hurtful and damaging to their Christian brothers and sisters.”

“It appears,” the bishop observed, “that their decision is being taken in accord with their instincts and feelings, and the ways of the liberal society in which they live, and that they have forgotten the moral values and teachings of the Holy Scriptures and their Church.”

A coalition of Evangelical Anglicans in Ireland issued a joint statement expressing support for those within the Episcopal community who feel “hurt and alienated” by Glasspool’s ordination.

“Many Christians of all traditions and denominations will share our sorrow and see Mary Glasspool’s consecration as a defiant rejection of pleas for restraint and, even more importantly, as a rejection of the pattern of holiness of life called for in Scripture and endorsed by believers over the centuries,” they wrote on Sunday.

Rev. Robinson Cavalcanti, Bishop of the Diocese of Recife in Brazil, said in a statement on May 15 that the ordination was “lamentable” and that it has caused “a de facto rupture” within the Anglican community.

The bishop of the Diocese of Caledonia, Rev. William Anderson, added that he “can only hope that the Archbishop of Canterbury will finally accept that bishops and national churches who choose to willfully ignore the teaching of the Anglican Communion and Holy Scripture, ought to suffer the natural consequence of choosing to go their own way – which is to say, that they ought to be considered to have left the Anglican Communion.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Pakistani Muslims Abduct Young Christian Woman, Family Says


Mother beaten on two occasions for trying to recover her; police refuse to prosecute.

LAHORE, Pakistan, May 6 (CDN) — Muslims who kidnapped and forcibly converted an 18-year-old Christian woman to Islam severely beat her mother on two occasions to discourage her from trying to recover her daughter, lawyers said.

Muhammad Akhter and Muhammad Munir on April 25 broke into the home of 50-year-old widow Fazeelat Bibi while her sons were at work and beat her because they were upset at her continuous demands that they return her daughter Saira, Christian Lawyers Foundation (CLF) leaders told Compass.

CLF President Khalid Gill said that neighbors’ calls to the police emergency number went unheeded as the men beat her in Lahore’s predominantly Muslim Bostaan Colony.

On April 18 Muhammad Akhter and members of his family had beaten her with clubs and ripped her clothes when the widow, having received a tearful phone call from her kidnapped daughter that day, went to their house to argue for her release.

In Saira’s telephone call to her mother, received at the house of Muslim neighbor Musarat Bibi, who is a constable, the young woman was crying as she said that Munir and Akhter were spreading false rumors that she had eloped with Munir, Fazeelat said. She said her daughter told her how Munir, Akhter and Munir’s sister Billo Bibi had kidnapped her, stolen the jewelry of her dowry, forced her to convert to Islam and were pressuring her to marry Munir.

At the time she was kidnapped on March 10, Saira was engaged to a young Christian man of Youhanabad, a large Christian slum on the outskirts of Lahore, Fazeelat Bibi said.

“Saira’s brothers and I were very joyful because we were about to fix her wedding date,” she said.

Previously the radical Muslim family lived next door to the Christian family. On March 10 Munir, who is Akhter’s uncle, came to the Christian family’s home and told Saira that her mother was ill at her hospital workplace and wanted to see her immediately, Fazeelat Bibi said.

“Then Muhammad Munir deceitfully abducted Saira,” she said. “It seemed as if Saira had vanished into thin air. At first my three sons and I sons searched for Saira, but our efforts were futile.”  

She accused Munir, Akhter and Munir’s sister Billo Bibi of kidnapping her daughter. They have continued to threaten to kill her if she persists in trying to recover her daughter, she said. Her daughter, she added, has called her “persistently” from Charrar village saying that she has been kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and is being pressured to marry Munir against her will.

“This also reveals that Saira has not tied the knot with Munir yet,” Gill told Compass.

The distraught mother said she approached Kotlakhpat Police Station Inspector Rana Shafiq seeking help to recover her daughter, but that he flatly refused. The inspector told her the issue could be resolved at the local Bostaan Colony meeting, she said; the rulings of such a meeting of local elders, known as a Punchayat, have the equivalent of court authority in Pakistan.

Fazeelat Bibi said that several such meetings produced no resolution to her daughter’s kidnapping, but that while present she heard the false rumor that her daughter had wed Munir. At the meetings she also learned that the Muslim men were keeping Saira at Charrar village outside Lahore.

Fazeelat Bibi told Gill and CLF Secretary Azhar Kaleem said that she was somewhat satisfied to learn at the meetings that her daughter was at least safe, but her relief vanished after the April 18 call from Saira. Her daughter told her that she had tried to escape three times, she said.

Once again the frail, 50-year-old woman sought the help of Inspector Shafiq, and again he refused to help, the CLF leaders said. Gill and Kaleem said that Shafiq was explicitly inclined to favor his fellow Muslims in the case, and that he told her to move to a Christian slum as no one would help her in Bostaan Colony.

Gill, who is also head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Punjab Province, and CLF Secretary Kaleem said they believe that Akhter, Munir and Billo Bibi had heavily bribed the inspector to keep him from prosecuting the Muslims.

Shafiq declined to respond to Compass calls, and the registrar of the Kotlakhpat police station, Abdul Qayyum, said Shafiq was not available for comment.

Saira was just 2 months old when her father, Pervaiz Masih, died and her mother and three brothers moved from their native Yansonabad village to Lahore in search of a better life, Fazeelat Bibi said. She said that she began working as a sanitary worker at a hospital in order to support them, while her sons began working as day-laborers when they reached their teenage years.

Saira is her only daughter, Fazeelat Bibi said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Armenian Christian leader put to ‘Évin’ prison in Iran


Pastor Vahik Abrahamian, an Armenian Christian residing in Tehran, Iran, who was visiting a friend, upon his return to his home was arrested in Tehran by plainclothes security officers, reports FCNN. The manner in which he was arrested and the prolonged detention in Evin notorious prison, has created grave concern amongst the Iranian Christian community, particularly with family and friends.

"As per reports by FCNN correspondents and sources within the country, on Saturday 20th February 2010 (1 Esfand 1388) plainclothes security officers arrested 44 years old ‘Vahik Abrahamian’ , who is an Armenian Christian leader, as he was departing a friend’s house who was visiting Iran from Europe.

The manner in which Pastor Abrahamian was arrested is very unsettling and indeed ambiguous. As per received reports, 3 plainclothes security agents who were in a green Peugeot vehicle, swarmed upon Mr. & Mrs. Abrahamian as they were departing their friends house.

What is quite uncommon in any similar incident, one of the agents was filming the whole episode with a handheld camera. The agents showed an arrests warrant with permission to ‘shoot to kill’. After searching their vehicle and seizing all personal belongings, they set Mrs. Abarahmian free and took Pastor Vahik to Evin prison.

As per FCNN reports, wife and parents and extended family and friends of this Armenian Christian leader, are extremely concerned for the well being of the prisoner and are completely in state of shock. Mrs. Abrahamian has been unwilling or afraid to discuss the matter with anyone.

All Pastor Vahik’s family and friends vouch for his meek, humble and Godly character. All are unanimous that he was not only God fearing and law abiding citizen but was also very compassionate and sensitive particularly to the drug addicts and reached out to serve them. All are totally convinced that his character is beyond reproach and are hoping that this grave misunderstanding by the authorities will clear and he will be set free.

It’s noteworthy that Pastor Abrahamian had dual Dutch and Iranian citizenship, yet chose to live, work and serve in his native country Iran, staying close to aging mother and family.

As per obtained reports, there are many unanswered questions with regards to the circumstances leading to his arrest which is normally conducted in detaining known terrorists or political activists. The authorities have neither commented why this extraordinary measures were taken and nor why is he being held for such lengthy period. It’s also unclear who is holding this law abiding ordinary citizen and which authority has ordered his arrest! It seems that we have a long wait to hear from Islamic republic Juridical and legal authorities about reason of his arrest.

The received reports indicate that after elapse of over a month from his arrest, there is complete silence by Iranian Legal and juridical authorities and so far he has been denied appointment of a lawyer or visits by next of keen. Mother, Wife, brother and extended family are extremely concerned for his well being and are grief stricken with no clear and promising news.

At this time we would like to beseech all Christian community in Iran and overseas to fast and pray for his release and also pray for other Christians arrested in the last days and weeks in various cities in Iran. May God in His grace intervene in this situation and let’s hope that he will unite with his family bringing great joy and relief in the festive days of the Nowruz’ spring in Iran.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Egyptian Court Refuses to Return Passport to Christian


Convert from Islam tried to leave country to save his life.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — An Egyptian court last week refused to return the passport of a convert from Islam who tried to leave Egypt to save his life, the Christian said on Friday (March 12).

On Tuesday (March 9) the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return the passport of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary. El-Gohary said he was devastated by the decision, which essentially guarantees him several more months of living in fear.

“I am very, very disappointed and very unhappy about what happened,” he said, “because I am being threatened – my life is being threatened, my daughter’s life is being threatened very frequently, and I don’t feel safe at all in Egypt.”

Nabil Ghobreyal, El-Gohary’s attorney, told Compass the government declined to give the court any reason for its actions.

“There was no response as to why his passport was taken,” Ghobreyal said.

On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized El-Gohary’s passport. El-Gohary, 57, also known as Peter Athanasius, was trying to leave the country to visit China. Eventually he intended to travel to the United States. At the time, El-Gohary was told only that his travel had been barred by “higher authority.”

El-Gohary, who converted to Christianity from Islam more than 30 years ago, gained notoriety in Egypt in February 2009, when he filed a court application to have the religion on his identification card changed from Muslim to Christian. El-Gohary’s action caused widespread uproar among conservative Muslims in Egypt. He was branded an “apostate” and multiple fatwas, or religious edicts were issued against him. In accordance with some interpretations of the Quran, some Muslims believe El-Gohary should be killed for leaving Islam.

Since filing his application, El-Gohary has lived in fear and has been in hiding with his 15-year-old daughter. Every month, he said, they move from apartment to apartment. He is unable to work, and his daughter, also a Christian, is unable to attend school.

Their days are filled with anxiety, fear and boredom.

“We are very fearful,” El-Gohary said. “We are hiding between four walls all day long.”

El-Gohary went through extraordinary efforts to get the documentation the court demanded for him to officially change his religion, including getting a certificate of conversion from a Coptic Christian religious group. The certificate, which was the first time a Christian church in Egypt recognized a convert from Islam, also caused an uproar.

But ultimately, in June the court denied his application. He was the second person in Egypt to apply to have his religion officially changed from Islam to Christianity. The other applicant was denied as well. El-Gohary has not exhausted his appeals and may file legal proceedings with an international legal body. He has another hearing with the administrative court on June 29.

“I don’t understand what I have done wrong,” El-Gohary said. “I went though the normal legal channels. I thought I was an Egyptian citizen and I would be treated as such by the Egyptian law. I went through the front doors of the legal system, not the back doors, and for that I am being threatened, chased, and I live in continuous fear.”

The National Constitution of Egypt guarantees freedom of religion unless it contradicts set practices in sharia, or Islamic law. While it is easy to change one’s religious identity from Christian to Muslim, it is impossible to do the opposite.

El-Gohary’s case was mentioned by name in a human rights report issued Thursday (March 11) by the U.S. Department of State. El-Gohary said he was pleased that his case was in the report. He said he believes it is his duty to open new doors for his fellow converts in Egypt.

“This is something I have to do,” he said. “It is a duty. I have become a symbol for Christians in Egypt.”

El-Gohary said he hopes U.S. President Barack Obama, other world leaders and international groups will pressure the Egyptian government to allow him to leave the country.

In spite of his ordeal, El-Gohary said faith is still strong and that he doesn’t regret becoming a Christian.

“I don’t regret it at all,” he continued, excitedly. “This is the narrow road that Christians have to go through and suffer to reach eternal life. I have no regrets whatsoever. We are very grateful to know Christ, and we know He’s the way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Why Bhutan’s Royalists Fear Christianity


Social, political factors behind country’s reluctance to allow Christianity to grow

THIMPHU, Bhutan, February 1 (CDN) — Bars, pubs and discos have become legal in Bhutan – a cause of concern for the older generation – but construction of worship buildings other than Buddhist or Hindu temples is still prohibited.

The prohibition remains in force even though Christians abide by Bhutan’s codes of conduct, speaking the Dzongkha language as well as the Nepali language at church gatherings, and wearing the national dress.

The National Assembly of Bhutan banned the practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions through edicts in 1969 and in 1979. But Christians do meet for Sunday worship, with attendance of more than 100 Christians in an underground church not unusual.

Why are Christians seen as a greater threat to the culture of the nation than the “democracy disco culture,” as one government official described the emerging subculture among the Bhutanese youth? It is believed that Christianity will create religious tensions in the country.

“There are reasons why Christianity is not being tolerated in the country,” said a former high government official who requested anonymity. “Look at the communal tensions in India and Nepal. Christianity can divide the Bhutanese society as well.”

He mentioned two incidents that appeared in the Bhutanese press last year, one in which 13 Christians allegedly hanged a woman they had accused of being a witch, and a suicide by a Hindu man who reportedly left a note saying his Christian wife and children were pressuring him to convert.

Christians here said these were isolated incidents that they strongly condemned.

“A majority of believers in Bhutan are not educated and are from lower economic backgrounds,” said the pastor of an underground church. “When open preaching is not allowed, this is what happens.”

Sound Christian teaching remains lacking, he said. There is a tremendous need for good Christian teaching and general education among the Christians in Bhutan, said the pastor.

“But little can be done given the restrictions we face here.”

Christians are only allowed to pray if someone is sick among their acquaintances, he added.

The government also fears that Christianity could cause societal tensions because of the general misconception that Christians lure others to the faith with money; converts are viewed with suspicion, said a government official on condition of anonymity.

“There should be one religion in one nation,” said the official, adding that religious freedom should be allowed only after educating people.

Threat from Within

Bhutanese officials are no strangers to religious conflict.

“You must also understand that the kind of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan is a minority sect within the two Buddhist divisions,” said the former government official.

A majority of Buddhists in Bhutan practice Vajrayāna Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, and belong to the larger Mahayana sect, one of the two major divisions of the religion along with the Theravada sect.

Theravada Buddhism has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries, including Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mahayana is practiced in a few East Asian countries, including Japan.

Unlike Theravada, which is more individualistic in its motivation, Mahayana Buddhism involves an aspiration to achieve enlightenment not only for one’s own sake, but for the sake of all “sentient” beings.

“There is a perceived threat to the Buddhist sect in Bhutan from the more powerful Theravada division,” said the source, without divulging more about the clash within Buddhism. “In such a scenario, how can you expect the government to willingly open doors to Christianity, which too is a threat?”

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, Christians are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. Around 75 percent of the people practice Buddhism, and roughly 22 percent are Hindus, mostly of Nepali origin.

Monarchy and Buddhism

Religion is so closely linked to the monarchy in Bhutan that one cannot exist without the other.

The national flag of Bhutan, which consists of a white dragon over a yellow and orange background, also has religion in it. While the yellow half represents civil and political powers of the King, the orange signifies monastic traditions of Buddha’s teachings.

The religious link is protected in the new constitution, which was adopted in March 2008. Article 2 notes that the dual powers of religion and politics shall be unified in the person of the king, “who, as a Buddhist, shall be the upholder of the Chhoe-sid,” the traditional dual system of governance characterized by the sharing of power between the religious and political heads of the country.

Given that the king embodies religious and political authority, the common people worship him.

Additionally, Buddhism is woven into the national fabric. Bhutan is the only country in the world that employs a “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) equation to measure its people’s level of happiness, and the GNH assumes that all citizens are Buddhist. Respondents to the GNH survey are asked questions concerning “spiritual activities like meditation and prayers, and consideration of karmic effects in daily life.”

The introduction of democracy in Bhutan did not involve disturbing the religious and cultural status quo. While former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006, brought democracy to Bhutan without any demand for it, people believe his intentions were far from transforming the country into a full democracy.

It is believed that the political turmoil in neighboring Nepal partly influenced King Singye Wangchuck’s decision to make the country, at least on paper, a constitutional monarchy after over 100 years of absolute monarchy. A decade-long civil war led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist – which took more than 12,000 lives – is believed to be behind the abolition of the royal parliamentary system and the adoption of a socialist republic in Nepal. In 2006 the then-king of Nepal, Gyanendra, agreed to relinquish sovereign power to the people.

All sources in Bhutan confirmed that the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008), was still the supreme ruler. Perhaps this is why both the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (Bhutan Peace and Prosperity) Party and the opposition People’s Democratic Party are royalists.

Pictures of kings of Bhutan are found everywhere in the country – in homes, shops, hotels, underground churches and on street walls. Many large posters with the kings’ pictures carrying the inscription “Kings of our Hearts” can be seen along the streets. Even public buses have “Our Kings Forever” painted on them.

“But you cannot expect things to change overnight,” said the former government official. “It’s not wise to allow development without any bridle. Things are improving slowly.

Added an optimistic source, “Freedom in the real sense of the word and in all spheres is bound to come to Bhutan. It’s just a matter of time.”

Report from Compass Direct News