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

TURKEY: CHRISTIAN BOOKSHOP IN ADANA VANDALIZED


Second attack within one week follows threats from Muslim nationalists.

ISTANBUL, February 17 (Compass Direct News) – Following threats from Muslim nationalists, a Turkish Bible Society bookshop in the southern city of Adana was vandalized for the second time in a week on Thursday (Feb. 12).

Security camera footage shows two youths attacking the storefront of the Soz Kitapevi bookshop, kicking and smashing glass in both the window and the door. The door frame was also damaged.

Bookshop employee Dogan Simsek discovered the damage when he arrived to open the shop. He described security footage of the attack, which took place at 8:19 a.m., to Compass.

“They came at it like a target,” he said. “They attacked in a very cold-blooded manner, and then they walked away as if nothing had happened.”

The security camera did not clearly capture the faces of either youth, and police are still attempting to identify the perpetrators.

During the first attack on Feb. 7, the glass of the front door was smashed and the security camera mangled. Both have since been repaired.

Simsek told the Turkish national daily Milliyet that these are the first such incidents he has witnessed in the 10 years he has worked there.

“We sit and drink tea with our neighbors and those around us; there are no problems in that regard,” said Simsek, though he did acknowledge that local opinion is not all favorable. “This is a Muslim neighborhood, and many have told us not to sell these books.”

The bookshop has received threats from both Muslim hardliners and nationalists. Last November, a man entered the shop and began making accusations that the Soz Kitapevi bookshop was in league with the CIA, saying, “You work with them killing people in Muslim countries, harming Muslim countries.”

 

Systemic Prejudice

The attacks are another example of the animosity that Turkish Christians have faced recently, especially the small Protestant community. The Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey released its annual Rights Violations Summary last month, detailing some of the abuses faced by Protestant congregations in 2008.

The report makes it clear that violent attacks, threats and accusations are symptoms arising from an anti-Christian milieu of distrust and misinformation that the Turkish state allows to exist.

The report cites both negative portrayal in the media and state bodies or officials that “have created a ‘crime’ entitled ‘missionary activities,’ identifying it with a certain faith community” as being primarily responsible for the enmity felt towards Christians.

It urges the government to develop effective media watchdog mechanisms to ensure the absence of intolerant or inflammatory programs, and that the state help make the public aware of the rights of Turkish citizens of all faiths.

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: FAITHFUL MOURN DEATH OF PRIEST ATTACKED IN ORISSA


Hindu extremists beat Fr. Bernard Digal unconscious, leaving him bleeding in forest.

NEW DELHI, October 31 (Compass Direct News) – More than 3,000 people today attended the funeral in Bhubaneswar, Orissa of a Catholic priest who died on Tuesday (Oct. 28) from injuries sustained in anti-Christian violence that began in August.

Father Bernard Digal died in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, after an operation to remove a blood clot that developed in his brain due to a head injury from Hindu extremists attacking him on Aug. 25-26 in Kandhamal district, Orissa state. He was 46.

“He was smashed like a pulp,” Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, told Compass. “Because of the hate campaign of the [Hindu extremist] Sangh Parivar, the attackers lost their humanity and they became devils. Human beings can’t do what they have done.”

Archbishop Cheenath flew with Fr. Digal’s remains from Chennai to Orissa. Treasurer of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese in Orissa, Fr. Digal was visiting Sankarakhole parish when violence flared after Maoists killed Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and his disciples on Aug. 23.

Though police suspected Maoists from the start and the outlawed Marxists had claimed responsibility for the murders by Sept. 1, Hindu extremists bent on stoking anti-Christian flames continued to publicize that Christians had committed the crime – and have not stopped doing so.

Fr. Digal and Father Alexander Chandy, along with driver Sisir Pradhan, had taken shelter in a forest after a furious mob gathered outside the parish shouting slogans to kill all missionaries. After spending two days in the forest, they left the forest after Fr. Chandy became ill, moving from village to village.

They finally took refuge in a gutted church building in Dudukangia village. It had been torched and only its walls were standing. Legs swollen from walking, the refugees hoped that the enraged Hindu mobs would not come, Archbishop Cheenath said.

But the mob tracked them down by midnight, the archbishop said, and the clerics and driver ran. The crowd caught hold of Fr. Digal, who later told Archbishop Cheenath, “The mob shouted to each other to kill me. I pleaded for my life, but in vain.”

Stripping Fr. Digal naked, the Hindu mob then hit him with crowbars, iron rods, cycle chains, axes, sticks and other weapons, the archbishop said.

“They made a bonfire to burn him alive,” he said.

Seeing the fire, Fr. Digal managed to escape and run through some thorny bushes but was caught shortly after. The intolerant Hindus continued to hammer him until blood flowed from his head and he lost consciousness, and they left him for dead, Archbishop Cheenath said.

“He lay there on the wet ground and in the cool breeze for six to seven hours,” he added. Two villagers who found him in the forest carried him to Phulbani.

After much pressure, the state administration took Fr. Digal to a private hospital in Bhubaneswar, under security cover, and from there he was taken to Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai.

Discharged the first week of October after more than a month in the hospital, he reached Chennai, Tamil Nadu on Oct. 12 to visit his friend the vicar general of the archdiocese, who was undergoing a heart treatment in St. Thomas Hospital.

“Fr. Digal, after coming to Chennai, complained of high fever, blood in the urine and headache, and lastly his lungs collapsed,” Archbishop Cheenath told Compass.

Tests revealed he had a blood clot in the brain, and he underwent emergency surgery on Sunday evening (Oct. 26), reported The Times of India. The next day, he developed acute respiratory disorder and slipped into a coma.

Kandhmal district Police Chief Pravin Kumar told the national daily that he had no knowledge of the attack on Digal.

“So many incidents took place,” he reportedly said. “I don’t know whether there was any formal complaint pertaining to the attack on him. The police can begin an enquiry into the incident if a complaint is lodged even now.”

The Orissa state government has ordered a probe into the death of Fr. Digal, according to The Statesman News Service.

Fr. Digal was ordained on May 29, 1992. He was a native of the village of Tiangia in Kandhamal.

 

Orissa Rape Victim’s Plea

Two months after a nun was raped and paraded half-naked on Aug. 25 in the anti-Christian violence in Orissa, the victim went before the media in New Delhi on Oct. 24 and recounted her traumatic experience.

Her head and face covered by a black scarf, Sister Meena Lalita Barwa accused police of being “friendly” with the attackers and of not being responsive to her plea. Expressing her distrust in Orissa police for failing to protect her from those who raped her and other attackers, she demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.

The nun had gone into hiding after the attack but decided to come forward after the Supreme Court turned down her initial request for a CBI investigation last week.

Sr. Barwa read from her handwritten statement, giving stark details of the incident. Archbishop Cheenath accompanied her in the press conference.

“Two of them were holding my neck to cut off my head with an axe,” she said. “Others told them to take me out to the road; I saw Fr. [Thomas] Chellan also being taken out and being beaten.”

The 40 to 50 men were armed with axes, spades, crowbars, iron-rods and sickles, Sr. Barwa added. She said she was taken to a building full of ashes and broken glass and raped there, with the mob subsequently parading her and Fr. Chellan for about a half a kilometer. Upon reaching a market she asked about a dozen Orissa police to help her, she said, “but they did not move.”

“This hate campaign,” Archbishop Cheenath said, “is done under the very nose of the authorities, and they are mere spectators of these shameful deeds.”

At the Balliguda police station, the nun recounted, she told the inspector in charge and other government officers how she was attacked, raped, taken away from policemen and paraded half-naked, and how the officers did nothing as she wept bitterly. The inspector asked her, she said, if she knew “what will be the consequence” of filing a First Information Report (FIR).

On Aug. 26, as she was writing the FIR, the inspector told her to hurry and not write it in detail, she said.

“State police failed to stop the crimes, failed to protect me from the attackers, they were friendly with the attackers,” she said. “They tried their best that I did not register an FIR, not make complaints against police, [and] police did not take down my statement as I narrated in detail and they abandoned me half of the way. I was raped and now I don’t want to be victimized by the Orissa police. I want a CBI enquiry.”

Since her press conference, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has called for a detailed report on the sequence of events from the district collector and superintendent of police.  

Report from Compass Direct News