Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law


Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.

 

‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.

 

Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”

 

SIDEBAR

Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Pakistan Fear Further Firestorms


Cooperation among police, Muslim and Christian leaders stave off religious brushfires.

LAHORE, Pakistan, September 8 (CDN) — In the wake of Islamists setting fires that killed at least seven people in Punjab Province last month, the latest of several attempts to provoke further attacks on Christians took place in a village on Friday (Sept. 4) when unidentified men tore pages of the Quran and left them at a church.

Police said they were able to cool tensions in Chak 8-11-L Mission Village, near Chichawatni, after the torn pages of the Muslim scriptures were left at the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church and on a nearby road. Sources said they have witnessed similar attempts to ignite attacks on Christians in several areas of Punjab Province since an Islamic mob on Aug. 1 burned seven Christians alive in Gojra over a false accusation of blaspheming the Quran.

Superintendent of Police Ahmed Nawaz Cheema said the pages of the Quran were left at the dividing line between Chak 8’s Christian-inhabited Mission village and the Muslim-populated Maliks village, indicating “it was planted to create tensions between the two villages.”

Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church Pastor Salmoon Ejaz told Compass that Muslim women on their way to glean cotton early in the morning had found the torn pages of the Quran. They took the pages to local Muslim clerics, who in turn took them to the police. Pastor Ejaz said the clerics came to Christian leaders and told them they had no suspicion that Christians had torn the pages, and that both Muslims and Christians should be vigilant and try to find the culprit.

Since then, the pastor said, the situation has been tense but under control, with police fully cooperating.

“The situation is calm, and we have no fear from the local Muslims, but the real threat is from the madrassas of Chak 11-11-L, 81-9-L and Multan Road,” said the pastor of the church, which was founded in 1906. “Even in Gojra the local Muslims had not attacked, but outsiders were the assailants, and that is the reason we are still frightened.”

In Gojra, members of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a pro-Taliban, Sunni Muslim group, and its al Qaeda-linked offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, were suspected of planning the attack that killed the Christians and injured at least 19 others. Urged on by clerics from mosque loudspeakers, the rampaging Islamists set fire to 50 homes and looted more than 100 houses.

Christian advocacy group Community Development Initiative (CDI) Field Officer Napoleon Qayyum said al Qaeda remnants have lost support following a Pakistani military operation in tribal areas along the Afghanistan border, and that to regain backing they were trying to exploit anti-U.S. and anti-Christian sentiment. He said well-coordinated efforts were underway to instigate Muslims against Christians by inciting hatred against the United States and the Pakistani government, a U.S. ally in anti-terrorism efforts. In this way, he said, the al Qaeda militants justify terrorist activities against the Pakistani government.

“Terrorism is like the AIDS virus, which keeps changing its tactics,” Qayyum said.

CDI helped to encourage police to increase security in the Mission Village area, he added.

Superintendent of Police Cheema said 50 policemen had been stationed in the area to prevent potential conflicts and would remain there until rumors died down. Christian leaders outside the district had contacted area police warning that Islamists could try to spark violence.

“These Christians have a good liaison with the Christians of other districts and cities,” he said.

Muslims in Maliks were cooperating fully with police to keep conflict from erupting, he said, adding that area Muslims were concerned that Christians in the 400-home Mission Village were not sending their children to school, which is located in the Maliks village of 2,000 Muslim homes. Cheema said area Muslims had indicated that if Christians were afraid, they would be willing to go to the Christian colony and bring their children to school.

Tensions after Gojra

The rumor of desecration of the Quran that led to the attack in Gojra, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Faisalabad, on July 30 had prompted an Islamist arson assault on Korian village, seven miles from Gojra, that gutted 60 houses.

On June 30, a cleric in Kasur district’s Bahmaniwala village used a mosque loudspeaker to announce a call to attack Christians that resulted in more than 500 Muslims ransacking and looting at least 110 houses. Chief Minister of the Punjab Shahbaz Sharif has ordered the arrest of six Muslim extremists, including suspected mastermind Qari Latif.

On Aug. 1, as houses in Gojra were burned and plundered, Muslim clerics called for demonstrations to protest the arrest of Islamists suspected in the Kasur violence. Pakistan People’s Party’s Provincial Assembly Member Ahmed Riaz Tohlu and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s National Assembly Member Sheikh Wasim resolved the issue by assuring Christians that Kasur would remain secure and by promising the Islamists that the arrested Muslims would be released. The officials told the provincial deputy general inspector, however, that the names of the released Muslims “should be the first to be mentioned in the FIR [First Information Report] if any untoward incident takes place.”

Potential tensions were also warded off in Shantinagar, a village near Khanewal that suffered a massive onslaught from Islamic extremists in 1997, after another incident involving the Quran on Aug. 8. District Councilor Chaudhry Salamat Allah Rakha told Compass that when one of the village Christians went out in the fields, he saw a bearded person holding something.

“That man yelled at him, at which point the other man ran away,” Rakha said. “This man tried to catch him but failed, and then he saw that there were three Qurans wrapped in a white cloth.”

The Christian suspected the bearded man who fled intended to tear pages of the Quran in order to frame Christians for blasphemy. District Councilor Wazir Jacob arrived at the site and called police, and Sadar police station House Officer Chaudhry Zaka came soon after and seized the three Qurans.

Rakha said that police were asked to file a First Information Report on the incident, but the district police officer refused on grounds that it would create tensions in the area.

Tensions were simmering in St. Henry Colony in Lahore after an altercation over an inconveniently parked car led to a gang fight. Local Pastor Azam Anthony told Compass that on Aug. 6 a Muslim family parked a car close to the front of a house owned by Christians, and a Christian woman came out of the house and asked them to move as it hampered their ability to enter.

“At this the Muslim woman dragged her by her hair, and the Christian woman in her effort to release herself got hold of her shalwar [a garment like trousers],” Pastor Anthony said. A man with the Muslim woman grew furious and began beating the Christian woman, he said.

“The sight further incited Christian boys there who were watching this all going on,” he said. “They asked that man why did he beat a woman, and they beat the man.”

The Muslim man gathered other Muslims, along with a Muslim councilor of the area, and began fighting the Christian boys. Pastor Anthony said that before leaving, the Muslims said they would deal with the Christians after Friday prayers.

“That afternoon was quite tense, and Christians of the area had prepared themselves for another Gojra incident,” Pastor Anthony said. The timely intervention of Christian leaders and police has averted any further incidents – so far.

In the wake of the Gojra attack, Christians have deliberated whether to arm themselves so they can defend themselves against further attacks. One Christian, Naveed Masih, who fired into the air as the Islamist throng attacked, has been credited with reducing the number of casualties and damages. Dubbed Naveed the Soldier, he was the only man with a rifle when the mobs charged Gojra. Several Christian women had taken refuge in his house.

A Muslim association based in Gojra, the Muslim Mahaz Tanzeem for Peace, has since tried to blame Maish for setting off the violence and charged three priests and another Christian with providing him weapons. According to Asia News, the association has threatened another Islamist wave of violence unless the four Christians are arrested.

District Councilor Rakha said that since the attack, about 15 boys have been armed and trained to keep watch at night. Christians in other areas, such as Youhanabad and Bahar Colony in Lahore, told Compass that they would rather die defending themselves than be killed doing nothing.

Petition for Prosecution

In view of the increase in attacks against Christians in Pakistan, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has filed a petition with the United Nations through its European body, the European Center for Law and Justice.

“We have expressed in the strongest terms possible that the Pakistani government must prosecute acts of violence based upon religion,” said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ECLJ and the U.S.-based ACLJ. “Christians are being singled out and murdered because of their faith. Only when the Pakistani government effectively prosecutes those responsible for the acts of violence will attacks against Christians end.”

The “blasphemy laws” that encourage Muslim violence against Christians violate the principle of the universality of religious freedom to which Pakistan officially adheres, Sekulow said.

The ECLJ petition calls on Pakistan to prosecute deadly attacks on Christians, which have claimed the lives of at least 60 Christians in the past decade in at least 27 separate incidents of Muslim-on-Christian violence. The ECLJ filing states: “More than two decades of blasphemy laws have taught Pakistani Muslims that the punishment for allegedly insulting Islam is death. The Pakistani government must repeal or procedurally change blasphemy laws.”

Because Pakistan has proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in a resolution to the U.N. that it presented on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, it should abide by those terms for its own religious minorities, the ECLJ petition states.

Report from Compass Direct News