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

Church Screening of ‘Jesus Film’ Attacked in Pakistan


Muslim villagers injure seven Christians, two seriously; police refuse to register case.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, December 14 (CDN) — Some 50 Muslim villagers armed with clubs and axes attacked a showing of the “Jesus Film” near this city in Punjab Province on Wednesday night (Dec. 9), injuring three part-time evangelists and four Christians in attendance.

Two of the evangelists were said to be seriously injured. The Muslim hardliners also damaged a movie projector, burned reels of the film and absconded with the public address system and donations from Christian viewers in Chak village, about 10 kilometers northeast of Sargodha, at 7 p.m.

Officers at the Saddr police station refused to register a case against the Muslim assailants, sources said.

Compass observed three part-time evangelists – Ishtiaq Bhatti, Imtiaz Ghauri and Kaleem Ghulam – screening the film within the premises of the Catholic Church of Chak, which sits within the police precincts of Saddr police station-Sargodha. Bhatti said the church compound was crammed with Christian villagers clapping as the film showed Jesus Christ performing miracles, raising the dead, casting out evil spirits and healing ailments.

Injured Christians were taken to the Basic Health Unit (BHU) of Chak village. Bhatti was treated for minor injuries, while Ghauri and Ghulam sustained serious injuries for which they received treatment at another hospital.

The evangelists who were screening the film said from their clinic beds that a Muslim cleric instigated the Muslim villagers, who were armed with clubs, spades and axes.

“They charged on us deadly and swiftly and left us injured and broke all our appliances and took away funds collected by congregants to help us,” Bhatti said. “Muslim men also injured those Christian villagers who tried to intervene and stop them.” 

The intervention of Chaudhary Nassar-Ullah Cheema, headman of the village, resulted in the rescue of the Christian evangelists and the surrender of the Muslim mob, sources told Compass. The Muslim hardliners were forced to evacuate the church grounds, but only after a stand-off of nearly two hours.

Eyewitnesses who requested anonymity told Compass that numerous Muslim villagers and their clerics had gathered outside the church compound as the film played, with some of them climbing trees to get a clearer view of the screen. The eyewitnesses said that as soon as the Muslim attackers watched the resurrection and ascension of Christ, they became enraged because their version of Islam forbids portraying an image of a living thing and especially that of a prophet.

The sources added that although Muslims hold Christ as a prophet, they believe he was never crucified, having been replaced by a man identical to him.

No doctor was initially available for the four injured Christian viewers and three preachers who were taken to the BHU of Chak, but a male nurse treated their wounds and allowed them to go home. Ghauri and Ghulam sustained critical injuries and were transferred to District Headquarters Hospital in Sargodha.

Asad Masih, a local Christian leader, told Compass that they tried to register a case against Muslim villagers for thrashing (Article 337 of the Pakistan Penal Code) stealing (Article 380), recovery of the stolen items (411) and desecrating the church building, but police scornfully rejected their application. Officers peremptorily told them to settle the dispute in a local jury of village elders, he said.

Inspector Azeem Warriach of Saddr police station told Compass that registration of a case against a large number of Muslim villagers would further create a break-down of law and order.

“Therefore, I’ve directed them to solve the problem at the local level so that they might reconcile and live in perfect peace and harmony,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

MEXICO: ‘TRADITIONALIST CATHOLICS’ ATTACK, EXPEL CHRISTIANS


Evangelicals in two states lose homes, crops for refusing to participate in religious revelry.

MEXICO CITY, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – “Traditionalist Catholic” leaders last month expelled 57 evangelical Christians from towns in two states for refusing to participate in their religious festivals.

Leaders of traditionalist Catholicism, a mixture of Roman Catholicism and native rituals, expelled 32 Christians from their homes in a village in Hidalgo state and another 25 from a town in Oaxaca; in each case, the evangelicals were deprived of their property for refusing to participate in drunken festivals that included worship of Catholic icons.

Hundreds of evangelical Christians from six states of Mexico organized a caravan on Aug. 10 on behalf of the 32 evangelicals from Los Parajes, near Huejutla in Hidalgo state, who were violently torn from their homes on July 13 when the town’s traditionalist Catholic leaders struck them with machetes and ropes. They were forced to leave behind 121 acres of land planted with crops, as well as their homes and animals.

The 32 Christians in Hidalgo state, north of Mexico City, say they have lost their entire crops of corn and sesame, and they are missing the season for planting jicama.

Cars and buses forming the caravan met at noon in the town of Tantoyuca, Hidalgo, proceeding together with police escort to Huejutla, where they left their vehicles and continued on foot toward the central plaza carrying the Mexican flag, a Christian flag, and placards with messages of love and support. Pastor Carlos Del Angel of Cerro Azul, Veracruz organized the protest, with the demonstrators also bringing food and clothing to the victims.

At press time Christian lawyer Samuel Noguera had still not been able to reach a solution with authorities. One of the expelled evangelical leaders, Enrique García, told newspaper Milenio Hidalgo on Aug. 11 that local and state authorities should respect the rights of those who have been expelled.

“It seems to me impossible that once it has been proven that all of us evangelicals have fulfilled our obligations to the town, we should still be exiled,” García reportedly said. “I understand that approximately 70 percent of the population of Los Parajes is open to our return.”

In February the Christians had reached an agreement with the community allowing them to choose to follow their own faith, but when Enedino Luna Cruz became town leader he burned the document, according to the evangelicals.

At first the expelled group, including two infants, four other small children, and several older adults, took refuge in two rooms of Benito Juarez School in nearby Huejutla, sleeping on the floor and going without food and water – and quashing plans for a 15th birthday celebration, a traditional Mexican quinceanera or “coming out” party, for Alejandra Dorotea Gerónimo, according to local newspapers.

The Milenio Hidalgo newspaper reported on July 28 that townspeople in Los Parajes had offered to allow the Christians to return if they denied their faith and paid the equivalent of nearly $13,900 in “fines” for having refused to contribute to the traditionalist Catholic festivals, but they refused.

“We are being treated as though we were delinquents for being evangelicals,” one Christian leader, Roberto Hernandez, told Milenio Diario on July 21.

The men were prohibited from leaving the school to try to earn money for food and were forbidden to tend to their crops.

Milenio Hidalgo later reported that on August 4 the refugees were moved out of the school into a small house with three rooms, one bathroom, and no tables or beds. Due to lack of space, the men were unable to lie down to sleep at night. Following the Aug. 10 caravan, the Milenio Hidalgo reported that the group would be relocated to a larger house with five bedrooms and two baths.

Three years prior, town officials had cut off water and electricity service to the seven Christian families in the village for being unwilling to return to Catholicism. At that time the pastor of the group was beaten and tied up in a futile effort to force him to change his faith. Likewise, in the current case authorities told the Christians their expulsion could have been avoided if they had rejected their faith.

Death Threat

In the Yavelotzi community near San Jacinto, Oaxaca, 25 Christians were threatened and expelled from their homes for the same reasons on July 17, according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The Netherlands-based organization said local authorities of Yavelotzi threatened to beat and kill a group of evangelical Christians on that day if they did not leave the community at once. The Christians had refused to participate in week-long parties characterized by drunkenness and worship of Catholic icons.

The 25 Christians left behind their homes, crops and communal rights – necessary for gaining access to government assistance – and were warned not to return unless they renounced their faith in Jesus Christ, according to Open Doors. They relocated to a nearby community called Rancho Tabla.

To prevent them from returning to their homes, Yavelotzi officials have taken away their land and have refused to allow their children to register for school, the organization said in a statement.

In nearby Arroyo Copete, according to Open Doors, traditionalist Catholic leaders have refused to allow the children of 10 Christian families to register for school, and are forcing the families to participate in the Catholic festivals. The officials assert that the evangelicals are not participating in the obligatory community service, but evangelicals say contributing to that service requires them to participate in “idol worship” as well.

In the Yavelotzi conflict, lawyers for both sides were to meet on July 25, but it was postponed at the last minute as the attorney for the Yavelotzi community was unable to attend.

Report from Compass Direct News 

MEDICAL SYSTEM IN GAZA STRIP NEARING ITS COLLAPSE


The latest reports coming out of the Gaza Strip indicate that medical personnel are having difficulty reaching the wounded and that the collapse of the medical system is imminent. Church officials are calling for a cease fire to treat the wounded, reports Catholic News Agency.

According to Caritas Internationalis, a network of 162 aid agencies which helps provide primary medical services in Gaza, its efforts to help the wounded are being severely hampered by the war.

Caritas’ president, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, has issued a call for an immediate cease fire, saying, “Caritas and our Catholic Church partners in the Holy Land call for an immediate ceasefire to enable the sick and wounded to be treated. Innocent people are suffering because aid agencies cannot reach them due to the Israeli military action.

“Caritas calls for action from the USA, the EU, and the international community on pressing for an immediate ceasefire to create the necessary environment in Gaza for aid agencies to be able to care for the wounded. War cannot be justified by either Israel or Hamas. Arguments over proportionality are morally repugnant when we are talking about the lives of innocent children.”

The latest figures show 87 Palestinian children have been killed in the Israeli attacks.

Caritas’ Jerusalem Secretary-General Claudette Habesch offered more details about developments on the ground. “Our staff in Gaza are witnessing a collapse of medical services. People are dying in their homes because they can’t get treatment. There are 2,053 hospitals bed sin Gaza and 2,500 people wounded by the Israeli bombardment. Doctors say they lack bandages and antiseptic.”

The Israeli offensive against Gaza began after the Palestinian region’s ruling Hamas party made continuous rocket attacks on southern Israel, citing Israeli raids and blockades.

Israeli tanks, planes, and ground forces continued their attacks Sunday night. According to Reuters, at least 541 people have died in the 10-day offensive.

Israel had occupied the Palestinian enclave in Gaza from 1967 to 2005.

Report from the Christian Telegraph