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
Court sentences him to three years on dubious charge of ‘attempt to promote civil unrest.’
NEW DELHI, October 18 (CDN) — A court in predominantly Buddhist Bhutan has sentenced a Christian to three years in prison for “attempting to promote civil unrest” by screening films on Christianity.
A local court in Gelephu convicted Prem Singh Gurung, a 40-year-old ethnic Nepalese citizen from Sarpang district in south Bhutan, on Oct. 6, according to the government-run daily Kuensel.
Gurung was arrested four months ago after local residents complained that he was showing Christian films in Gonggaon and Simkharkha villages in Jigmecholing block. Gurung invited villagers to watch Nepali movies, and between each feature he showed films on Christianity.
Government attorneys could not prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that Gurung promoted civil unrest, and therefore “he was charged with an attempt to promote civil unrest,” the daily reported.
Gurung was also charged with violation of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act of 2006. Sections 105(1) and 110 of this law require that authorities examine all films before public screening.
A Christian from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, told Compass that the conviction of Gurung disturbed area villagers.
While Gurung has the right to appeal, it remained unclear if he had the resources to take that course.
Both Gonggaon and Simkharkha are virtually inaccessible. It can take up to 24 and 48 hours to reach the villages from the nearest road.
“Both villages do not have electricity,” the daily reported. “But Prem Singh Gurung, with the help of some people, is believed to have carried a projector and a generator to screen the movies in the village.”
Over 75 percent of the 683,407 people in Bhutan are Buddhist, mainly from western and eastern parts. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.
It is also estimated that around 6,000 Bhutanese, mostly from south, are Christian in this landlocked nation between India and China. However, their presence is not officially acknowledged in the country. As a result, they practice their faith from the confines of their homes, with no Christian institution officially registered.
Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan, and the government is mandated to protect its culture and religion according to the 2008 constitution. As in other parts of South Asia, people in Bhutan mistakenly believe that Christianity is a Western faith and that missionaries give monetary benefits to convert people from other religions.
Yesterday’s Kuensel published an opinion piece by a Bhutanese woman from New York who described herself as “an aspiring Buddhist” condemning both the conviction of Gurung and Christian “tactics.”
“Although we may not like the tactics used by the Christians to proselytize or ‘sell’ their religion to impoverished and vulnerable groups, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture, in terms of religious tolerance, and what constitutes ‘promoting civil unrest,’” wrote Sonam Ongmo. “If we truly want to establish ourselves as a well-functioning democracy, with equal rights for all, let’s start with one of the fundamental ones – the right to choose one’s faith. We have nothing to worry about Buddhism losing ground to Christianity, but we will if, as a predominantly Buddhist state, we start to deny people the right to their faith.”
While her view is representative of liberal Buddhists in Bhutan, a reader’s response in a forum on Kuensel’s website reflected the harder line.
“These Christians are a cancer to our society,” wrote a reader identifying himself as The Last Dragon. “They had crusades after crusades – we don’t need that. We are very happy with Buddhism. Once Christianity is perfect – as they always claim [it] to be, then let’s see.”
In July, the government of Bhutan proposed an amendment in the Penal Code of Bhutan which would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement.” (See, “Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law,” July 21.)
Christian persecution arose in Bhutan in the 1980s, when the king began a “one-nation, one-people” campaign to “protect the country’s sovereignty and cultural integrity.” Ethnic Nepalese, however, protested the move on grounds of discrimination. Authorities responded militarily, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were secret Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.
An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, in accordance with the wish of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. Since the advent of democracy, the country has brought in many reforms. It is generally believed that the government is gradually giving more freedom to its citizens.
The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley, are respected by almost all Bhutanese and are seen as benevolent rulers.
Report from Compass Direct News
Ghosts – not sure how to answer this one. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts to the extent that they are shown in films and believed in popular culture. I do believe that spirits exists – in one form or another.
Mistaking compass she drew for a cross, parents of students threatened to expel her.
NEW DELHI, October 5 (CDN) — Authorities in the Maldives last week had to transport a Christian teacher from India off one of the Islamic nation’s islands after Muslim parents of her students threatened to expel her for “preaching Christianity.”
On Wednesday night (Sept. 29) a group of angry Muslim parents stormed the government school on the island of Foakaindhoo, in Shaviyani Atoll, accusing Geethamma George of drawing a cross in her class, a source at Foakaindhoo School told Compass.
“There were only 10 teachers to defend Geethamma George when a huge crowd gathered outside the school,” the source said by telephone. “Numerous local residents of the island also joined the parents’ protest.”
The school administration promptly sought the help of officials from the education ministry.
“Fearing that the teacher would be physically attacked, the officials took her out of the island right away,” the source said. “She will never be able to come back to the island, and nor is she willing to do so. She will be given a job in another island.”
A few days earlier, George, a social studies teacher, had drawn a compass to teach directions to Class VI students. But the students, who knew little English, mistook the drawing to be a cross and thought she was trying to preach Christianity, the source said. The students complained to their parents, who in turn issued a warning to the school.
Administrators at the school set up a committee to investigate the allegation and called for a meeting with parents on Thursday (Sept. 30) to present their findings. The committee found that George had drawn a compass as part of a geography lesson.
“However, the parents arrived the previous night to settle the matter outside the school,” said the source.
According to local newspaper Haveeru, authorities transferred George to the nearby island of Funadhoo “after the parents threatened to tie and drag her off of the island.”
The teacher, who worked at the school for three years, is originally from the south Indian coastal state of Kerala. Many Christians from Kerala and neighboring Tamil Nadu state in India are working as teachers and doctors in the Maldives.
Preaching or practicing a non-Muslim faith is forbidden under Maldivian law, which does not recognize any faith other than Islam. The more than 300,000 citizens of the Maldives are all Sunni Muslims.
A string of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka in South Asia, the Maldives is the only country after Saudi Arabia that claims to have a 100 percent Muslim population. As per its constitution, only a Muslim can be a citizen of the country. Importing any literature that contradicts Islam is against the law.
Many of the more than 70,000 expatriate workers in the Maldives are Christian, but they are allowed to practice their faith only inside their respective homes. They cannot even get together for prayer or worship in each other’s houses – doing so has resulted in the arrest and deportation of expatriates in the past.
The Maldives was ruled by an authoritarian, conservative Muslim president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, for 30 years. The nation became a multi-party democracy in 2008 with Mohamed Nasheed – from the largely liberal Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – as the new president.
Gayoom’s right-wing party, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), however, managed to win a simple majority in the People’s Majlis – as the parliament is known in the Maldives – in the 2009 parliamentary election. The Maldives follows the presidential system.
The DRP-led opposition often criticizes Nasheed’s government, accusing it of being liberal in cultural and religious matters, which DRP leaders claim will have a bearing on the country’s sovereignty and identity.
A key ally of the MDP, the Adhaalath Party, also holds conservative views on religion and culture.
Many in Maldivian society, along with religious and political leaders, believe religious freedom is not healthy for the nation’s survival, although the Maldives does not perceive any threat from nearby countries.
Report from Compass Direct News
In its news night program on Friday 10th September Iranian State television announced that nine people had been arrested on the charge of carrying out evangelism just outside Hamedan. The report was announced by one of the security authorities, reports FCNN.
In this report State television mentioned that two of these people were being supported by organizations that are based outside the country, in particular the United States and Great Britain, but they did not mention the nationalities of these people.
In this report it has been said that: ‘the other seven people who were arrested are Iranian and were cooperating with these Christian-Zionist organizations’. This report labels the arrested people as ‘Christian Zionists’ and ‘evangelicals’ but it did not say anything about their relationship with Israel or Zionists.
In the Iranian government culture ‘Christian-Zionists’ is a title that they use to call Evangelical Christians who are benefiting from having access to a number of networks and TV satellite programs for evangelism.
This State TV report has not been reflected in other media and it is only the Fars news agency, which is connected to the Revolutionary Guard, which has mentioned that people had gathered to thank the security agents of Imam Mahdi and the legal authorities. This news agency has also published the lecture by Chief Justice Hojat Al-Islam BeegLare on this matter.
During the last few months and years there have been several times when Christians in home groups and new converts have been arrested by security agents, but this appears to be the first time in three decades that the State TV has broadcast the news of the arrest of a group of Christians in its program for a particular purpose.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
The Vatican Apostolic Library will be reopened again this month after three years of reconstruction. As its director explained to Vatican Radio, it aims to be a cultural aid, to offer a glimpse of the "great truth of the world of God," reports Catholic News Agency.
Vatican Radio interviewed the library’s prefect, Msgr. Cesare Pasini about the grand reopening set to take place on Sept. 20.
Noting a series of initiatives scheduled to mark the reopening of the library this fall, the prefect also spoke of the value of the library to all people.
He said that by reopening the library, "we not only show scholars and the world what we have done … but we remodel ourselves on this fundamental spirit, on our mission, so that we don’t just make it a place to consult books."
The library, which allows scholars from all walks and creeds to study its volumes, has an aspect of universality and cultural preservation because it conserves materials "for today and tomorrow," he said.
Msrg. Pasini also promotes culture by allowing works to be "used, seriously studied and then probed to find any further fragment of truth.
"There are many truths," he said, "historic truths, truths that make investigations into the reality of things, and these little truths form part of the great truth of the world of God."
In an article he wrote for last Sunday’s edition of the L’Osservatore Romano, Msgr. Pasini described some of the 15,000 letters and e-mails his office has received hoping for the prompt conclusion to the restoration work and describing the library’s importance to studies. Responding to the interest, he said that in looking around the now "silent and shining" library, he has seen that "only the friendly presence of our scholars is lacking." He added, "may they know that they are warmly awaited."
Archivist of the Vatican Secret Archives, Cardinal Raffaele Farina, will present the renovated, restored and restructured library in an on-site press conference next Monday.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.
MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”
After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.
This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.
Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.
Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.
While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.
In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.
According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.
“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”
The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.
“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”
The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”
“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.
Religion Excluded from Rights
The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”
Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.
“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”
Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”
He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.
“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”
Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”
Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.
“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”
Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.
Politics of Religion
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.
The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.
In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.
“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.
That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.
When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.
Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.
Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.
To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.
Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.
Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.
Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”
Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”
Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”
As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.
How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?
“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.
Report from Compass Direct News
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
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
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.”
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
Court suspends Mohammed Hegazy’s lawsuit pending outcome of separate case.
CAIRO, Egypt, May 17 (CDN) — An Egyptian convert to Christianity said he is devastated by a recent court decision to suspend a lawsuit he filed to change the religion on his identification card from Muslim to Christian.
The First District of the Court of the State Council on April 27 suspended Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy’s case until the Constitutional Court rules on a challenge to Article 47, a section of the civil code that in theory allows Egyptians to change the religion listed on their ID card.
Hegazy, 27, said the suspension endangers his children’s welfare and will force them to lead a double life indefinitely – at home they will be taught to live in accordance with the Bible, and outside it they will be taught to live according to the Quran.
If they ultimately decide to follow Jesus, Hegazy said, his children will be declared “apostates” and be persecuted the rest of their lives for “leaving Islam.” Hegazy, who has suffered severely after Egypt’s religious authorities declared him an apostate, including being imprisoned by State Security Investigations (SSI) several times, said he filed the case so his children would avoid the same fate.
“I didn’t want them to have to go through the same harassment and persecution that I went through,” he said. “My daughter won’t be able to go to school without constantly fearing for her safety. She might even be killed simply because she is my daughter.”
Hegazy is arguably the most well-known Muslim convert to Christianity in Egypt. He rose to national prominence in August 2007 when he became the first Muslim convert in Egypt to sue for the right to change the religious status on his identification card to “Christian.”
Hegazy said he became a Christian in 1998 after seeking God during a period of intense study of religion. In his final assessment, he said, he found that Islam was void of the love and forgiveness found in Christianity.
Not long after his conversion, Hegazy said, he was arrested by SSI agents who tortured him for three days. In 2001, the SSI arrested Hegazy for writing a book of poems critical of the agency, which has been accused of abusive practices to preserve the regime. In 2002, the SSI arrested Hegazy and held him for more than two months in a prison he compared to a “concentration camp.”
In addition to the government response to his conversion, Hegazy said his mother and father have attacked him repeatedly for becoming a Christian.
“In the culture in Egypt, for a person to change his religion, it’s a big deal because it’s a question of honor and tradition,” Hegazy said. “My dad and my mom took it in a really bad way and would beat me.”
Hegazy married another convert from Islam, Katarina, in 2005. Katarina also wants her ID changed but fears government reaction; there are numerous reports circulating among Egyptian Christians about female converts being arrested and tortured by the SSI or simply disappearing in Egypt’s prison system under Egypt’s Emergency Law. Renewed last week for another two years, the law grants the government broad powers of arbitrary incarceration that human rights groups have roundly criticized.
When Hegazy filed his suit in 2007, he and his wife were expecting their first child. Overnight, Egyptian media propelled him into the national limelight. And the persecution got much worse.
Two religious scholars from Al-Azhar University, one of the leading voices of Islamic thought in the Middle East, publicly declared it was legal to kill Muslims that convert to Christianity. In one incident, extremists surrounded a home where Hegazy had once lived and stayed there for several days. In another incident, a group of men ransacked and set fire to Hegazy’s apartment while he was away.
Throughout his legal proceedings, several of Hegazy’s attorney’s have dropped out of the case after receiving death threats, being sued or being arrested. On Jan. 28, 2009, a court ruled that Muslims were forbidden to convert to another religion and ordered Hegazy to pay the costs of hearing his case. He appealed.
Hegazy lives in hiding. Unable to work, the former journalist is supported by friends and other Christians. Last month’s ruling will likely delay a decision in Hegazy’s case for several years and keep him and his family in limbo.
“The court is using this decision as a way of delaying having to make an ultimate decision,” Hegazy said.
The couple’s first child, Mariam, is now 2 years old, and their second child, Yousef, is 3 months old. Because Hegazy and his wife are unable to change their ID to reflect their true faith, the government lists both of their children as Muslims. If they choose to become Christians, they will be considered apostates who, in accordance with longstanding interpretation of the guiding scriptures of Islam, must be killed by faithful Muslims.
“It makes me feel like religion in Egypt isn’t something you can choose by your own free will; it’s something that you are forced to be, and nobody has a choice to choose what their religion is,” Hegazy said. “It bothers me a lot because my kids know they are being brought up as Christians in their home and their parents are Christians, but they can’t practice their religion outside the house.”
Every Egyptian citizen age 16 or older must carry a state-issued ID card that is required for opening a bank account, enrolling children in school and for starting a business, among other activities. Religious identity also determines to which civil or family court one is subject.
Of primary importance to Hegazy is that the religion indicated on the ID card determines what religious education classes a child is required to take in school.
There is a stark contrast in Egypt between the treatment of Christians who want to change the religious affiliation on their ID card to Islam and Muslims who want to change their affiliation to Christianity. Generally speaking, because Muslims consider the preaching of Muhammad to be the last of three revelations from God to man, in practice “freedom of religion” in Egypt means only the freedom to convert to Islam.
Article 47 of Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the constitution also states that Islam is the official religion of Egypt. Article 2 of the constitution states that Islamic law, or sharia, is “the principle source of legislation” in Egypt.
The difference between the treatment of converts to Christianity and converts to Islam is illustrated in the case of Samy Aziz Fahmy. The week before the court postponed Hegazy’s case, Fahmy, a Coptic Christian from Saayda village, changed his legal status to Islam. He received his ID card reflecting his new religion on the same day he applied for it – on the day he turned 18, the legal age for conversion.
“I think it’s very weird and not fair that when Christians want to convert to Islam there’s no problem, their papers go through and there’s no discrimination against them,” Hegazy said. “But when Muslims want to convert to Christianity, all of the sudden it’s a big deal.”
Hegazy is not alone in his legal battles. After he filed his case, other Muslim converts sought court action to change their IDs. Like Hegazy, most are in hiding of some sort. Hegazy’s lead attorney, Ashraf Edward, said he is working on several ID cases. He estimates there are more than 4 million converts to Christianity who want to change the religion listed on their ID, though the basis for that figure is unclear.
“There are a lot of people who want to change their ID, but they’re afraid of turning it into a court case because they don’t want to be persecuted,” Edward said.
Human rights groups and government agencies around the world have condemned Egypt for its record on religious freedom. In a report issued earlier this month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom outlined Egypt’s problems with identification cards and the treatment of converts from Islam, taking note of Hegazy’s case.
“The Egyptian government generally does not recognize conversions of Muslims to other religions,” the report states. “Egyptian courts also have refused to allow Muslims who convert to Christianity to change their identity cards to reflect their conversions. In the first such case, brought by Muhammad Hegazy, a lower court ruled in January 2008 that Muslims are forbidden from converting away from Islam based on principles of Islamic law. The court also stated that such conversion would constitute a disparagement of the official state religion and an enticement for other Muslims to convert. Hegazy, who has been subjected to death threats and is currently in hiding, has appealed the ruling.”
The report cited numerous other problem areas in regard to freedom of worship in Egypt, and the country remained on USCIRF’s Watch List for 2010. Egypt has been on the list since 2002. Among the changes USCIRF said are necessary in Egypt is how religion is reported on Egypt’s national ID card.
The commission said Egypt must “ensure that every Egyptian is protected against discrimination in social, labor, and other rights by modifying the national identity card, either to omit mention of religious affiliation or make optional any mention of religious affiliation.”
Report from Compass Direct News