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

Christians in Middle East Fear Violence from Anti-Quran Protests


Those in the West who provoke Muslim extremists are not the ones who will suffer, they say.

ISTANBUL, October 5 (CDN) — Christians across the Middle East said they will be the ones to suffer if a group of anti-Islamic protestors in the United States goes through with its plans to publicly tear up or otherwise desecrate the Quran.

They roundly condemned the proposed actions as political stunts that are unwise, unnecessary and unchristian.

“This kind of negative propaganda is very harmful to our situation in Muslim countries,” said Atef Samy, assistant pastor for networking at Kasr El Dobara, the largest Protestant congregation in Egypt. “It generates uncontrollable anger among the people around us and gives the impression that all Christians feel this way about Islam.”

Samy said U.S. Christians who are protesting Islam need to think about the results of their “irrational actions.” The desecration, he said, will lead to protests and will incite people to commit anti-Christian violence.

“How do they expect Muslims to react?” he said. “And has anybody thought how we will pay for their actions or even their words?”

Tomorrow and Thursday (Oct. 6 and 7), political activist Randall Terry will host “Hear Muhammad Speak!” a series of demonstrations across the United States that he said are meant to “ignite national and world-wide debate/dialogue/education on the anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and at times violent message of the Quran.” During these protests, Terry plans to tear out pages from the Quran and encourage others to do the same.

He has said he is conducting the protest because he wants to focus attention also on the Hadith and the Sunnah, the recorded sayings and actions of Muhammad that Muslims use to guide their lives. Terry said these religious documents call “for the murder, beheadings, etc. of Christians and Jews, and the suppression of religious freedom.”

Known for his incendiary political approach, Terry is founder of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion rights group. After stepping down from Operation Rescue, he publicly supported the actions of Scott Roeder, who murdered a Kansas physician who performed late-term abortions. Terry also arranged to have a protestor present an aborted fetus to then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

On this year’s anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Terry stood outside the White House and denounced Islam as one of five other protestors ripped out pages from the Quran and threw them into a plastic trash bag, which along with Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ planned (though ultimately cancelled) Quran-burning provoked isolated attacks across the Islamic world that left at least 19 dead.

Terry is part of a seemingly growing tide of people destroying or threatening to destroy the Quran as an act of protest against Islam or “Islamic extremism.”

 

Objections

Terry has said that he wants to “highlight the suffering of Christians inflicted by Muslims” and to call on Islamic leaders “to stop persecuting and killing Christians and Jews, and well as ‘apostates’ who leave Islam.”

But Christian leaders in the Middle East said protests in which the Quran is desecrated have the opposite effect. They are bracing themselves for more attacks. Protestors in the West can speak freely – about free speech, among other things – but it’s Christians in the Middle East who will be doing the dying, they said.

“This message of hate antagonizes Muslims and promotes hatred,” said Samia Sidhom, a Christian and managing editor of the Cairo-based newspaper Watani. “Thus churches and Christians become targets of counter-hate and violence. Islam is in no way chastised, nor Christianity exalted. Only hate is strengthened. Churches and Christians here find they need to defend themselves against the allegations of being hateful and against the hate and violence directed at them.”

Martin Accad, a Lebanese Christian and director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, agreed with Sidhom.

“We are held guilty by association by extremist Muslims, even though the vast majority of Muslims will be able to dissociate between crazy American right-wingers and true followers of Jesus,” he said.

Leaders in the Arabic-speaking Christian world said Terry’s protests and others like it do nothing positive. Such provocations won’t make violent Muslim extremists re-examine their beliefs or go away.

“Islam will not disappear because we call it names,” said Samy, of the Egyptian Protestant church. “So we must witness to our belief in Jesus without aggressively attacking the others.”

Accad, a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations and also associate professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, said positive engagement is the best approach for Christians to take toward Islam.

“Visit their places of worship and get to know them, and invite them to yours,” Accad said. “Educate your own congregation about Islam in a balanced way. Engage in transformational partnerships with moderate Muslim leaders who are working towards a more peaceful world.”

The element of the protests that most baffled Christians living in the Muslim world was that burning or tearing another religion’s book seemed so unchristian, they said.

“In what way can burning or ripping the Quran serve Christianity or Christians?” Sidhom of Watani said. “It is not an action fit for a servant of Christianity. It merely expresses hate and sends out a message of extreme hostility to Islam.”

Accad called publicly desecrating the Quran an act of “sheer moral and ethical absurdity.”

“These are not acts committed by followers of a Jesus ethic,” Accad said. “They will affect the image of Christianity as badly as the destruction of the World Trade Center affected the image of Islam.”

Accad added, “Since when do followers of Jesus rip an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?”

Such protests also defeat the purposes of churches in Islamic nations, Christians said. H. Ramdani, a church leader in Algeria, said Christians must strive to build bridges with Muslims in order to proclaim Christ.

“It’s destroying what we are doing and what we are planning to do,” he said of the protests. “People refuse to hear the gospel, but they ask the reason for the event. Muslims are more radical and sometimes they are brutal.”

At press time Compass was unable to reach Terry by phone or e-mail for a reply to the Middle Eastern Christians’ complaints about the planned protests, but after he staged a Sept. 11 Quran-tearing event he released a statement expressing “great sadness” over the deaths that followed while denying that it was right for Muslims to react violently to such protests.

“Such logic is like saying that a woman who is abused by her boyfriend or husband is guilty of bringing violence on herself because she said or did something that irritated him,” Terry stated.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack, Terry Jones, leader of a small congregation in Gainesville, Fla., made his mark in the media by threatening to burn a stack of Qurans in protest of Islam. At the last minute, after wide condemnation from around the world, Jones stated that he felt “God is telling us to stop” and backed out of the protest.

Despite Jones’ retreat, protestors unaffiliated with him burned Qurans in New York and Tennessee, and demonstrations swept across the Muslim world. In the relatively isolated attacks that ensued, protestors set fire to a Christian school and various government buildings, burning the school and the other structures to the ground. In Kashmir, 17 people were killed in Islamic assaults, and two protestors were killed in demonstrations in Afghanistan.

Report from Compass Direct News

Communist rebels decapitate Indian pastor in front of wife


International Christian Concern (ICC) has told the ASSIST News Service that it has learned that on Saturday, September 4, 2010, communist rebels decapitated a pastor and cut up his body after murdering him in Valam Guve Village, India. They also badly assaulted his wife, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

The ICC report said that Pastor Pangi Papa Rao and his wife, Chittamma, were returning from a prayer meeting at 3:30 PM when the masked communists stopped them. The pastor told them his name and explained that he and his wife were returning home from a prayer meeting. As soon as they heard the pastor’s name, they murdered him in front of his wife and severely beat her.

“The communists (Maoists) gave a statement to the local newspaper that they were responsible for the pastor’s death. They said they had killed him because the pastor was an informant for the government of India. They warned others that they also would receive the same kind of punishment,” said an ICC spokesperson.

ICC sources say the pastor was a "dedicated Christian" and "never worked as an informant of the government." He is survived by his wife and 19-year-old daughter. Pastor Rao’s church had close to 40 members; the congregation now attends a nearby church.

Communist (Maoist) rebels have been fighting the government of India for several years. They have strong support among landless farmers and tribal groups.

ICC’s Regional Manager for South Asia, Jonathan Racho, said “We are deeply saddened by the murder of Pastor Rao. We strongly condemn the brutal murder of the pastor and the assault of his wife. We urge Indian officials to protect its citizens from such heinous crime.”

Note: ICC is a Washington-DC based human rights organization that exists to help persecuted Christians worldwide.Its website is: www.persecution.org

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say


Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Somali militants chase Christians who’ve fled, beat them


After months of evading his pursuers, they finally caught up with him.

Voice of the Martyrs Canada confirms that on August 21, Islamic militants in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia found Mohamed Ali Garas, a prominent Somali church leader and convert from Islam, and beat him severely, reports MNN.

Five years ago, Garas fled his Somali homeland. VOMC’s Greg Musselman says Garas he sought refuge in Ethiopia because "he was involved in church work there as a pastor. Attempts were made on his life. He’s been threatened, he’s been arrested."

On the night he was attacked, he was walking home when he heard two men calling his name. He turned to see what they wanted, and they attacked, fleeing only when a neighbor arrived on the scene. Although the beating was severe, Garas survived.

The attack itself is unsettling, explains Musselman because "they [extremists] are not just leaving it back home; they’re taking it wherever they find these people that have converted to Christ from an Islamic background."

This incident shows that the persecution is not contained within Somalia’s borders. For al Shabaab, they’re ramping up to an all-out war meant to eradicate Christianity.

Shortly before a deadly suicide bombing attack on August 24, an al Shabaab spokesman was quoted as saying: "The operation is meant to eliminate the invading Christians and their apostate government in Somalia. The fighting will continue and, God willing, the mujahideen will prevail."

Somali Christians living in Ethiopia have come under increased attacks from Somali Muslims in recent months. That’s a trend that is likely to continue. Musselman says, "When you understand a little bit of the group like al Shabaab…you’re not surprised that they will go to any length. They’re thinking is that ‘the only kind of a Somali Christian is a dead one.’"

International Christian Concern notes that a Somali pastor in the Ethiopian capital has described this latest attack as "an apparent attempt to scare the Somali Christian community in Addis Ababa who considers Ethiopia a safe haven from religious persecution."

Musselman notes that prayer is a powerful recourse. "Lord, our brothers and sisters in Somalia are such a small group. They’re trying to be faithful. There are other Somalis that have left the country; they’re trying to be faithful, and they continue to suffer attacks, and it’s difficult for them. But we ask You, Lord, to move on the hearts even of the enemies that are persecuting these believers, that they would have the freedom to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Christian Convert in Bangladesh Falsely Accused of Theft


Muslims said to use mistaken identity to stop activities of Christian who refused to recant.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, August 27 (CDN) — A Christian convert from Islam was falsely arrested for cattle theft last weekend in a bid by influential Muslims to stop his Christian activities, area villagers said.

Day laborer Abul Hossen, 41, was arrested on Saturday (Aug. 21) for alleged cattle theft in Dubachari village in Nilphamari district, some 300 kilometers (180 miles) northwest of the capital, Dhaka.

Christian villagers told Compass that Hossen was the victim of “dirty tricks” by influential Muslims.

“There is another Abul Hossen in the village who might be the thief, but his father-in-law is very powerful,” said Gonesh Roy. “To save his son-in-law, he imputed all the blame to a different Abul Hossen who is a completely good man.”

Hossen, who converted to Christianity from Islam in 2007, has been very active in the community, and Muslims are harassing him with the charge so his ministry will be discredited and villagers will denounce his faith, Roy said.

“If he can be accused in the cattle theft case, he will be put in jail,” Roy said. “He will be a convicted man, and local people and the believers will treat him as a cattle thief. So people will not listen to a thief whatsoever.”

Some 150 villagers, about 20 percent of them Christian, went to the police station to plea for his freedom, he and other villagers said.

Sanjoy Roy, a lay pastor with Christian Life Bangladesh, told Compass that Hossen was a fervent Christian and that some Muslims have been trying to harass him since his conversion.

“They are hoping that if he is embarrassed by this kind of humiliation, he might not witness to Christ anymore, and it will be easy to take other converted Christians back to Islam,” Sanjoy Roy said. “He is a victim of dirty tricks by some local people.”  

Hossen was baptized on June, 12, 2007 along with 40 other people who were raised as Muslims. Of the 41 people baptized, only seven remained Christian, with villagers and Muslim missionaries called Tabligh Jamat forcing the remaining 34 people to return to Islam within six months, sources said.

Local police chief Mohammad Nurul Islam told Compass that officers had arrested a cattle thief who confessed to police that his accomplice was named Abul Hossen.

“Based on the thief’s confessional statement, we arrested Abul Hossen,” said Islam. “There are several people named Abul Hossen in the village, but the thief told exactly of this Abul Hossen whom we arrested.”

Hossen denied the allegation that he was involved in cattle theft, Islam said.

“Hossen is vehemently denying the allegation, but the thief was firm and adamantly said that Hossen was with him during the theft,” he said. “Then we took Hossen on remand for three days for further inquiry.”

A former union council chairman who is Muslim, Aminur Rahman, also told Compass that Hossen was a scapegoat.

“He is 100 percent good man,” said Rahman, who also went to the police station to plea for Hossen’s freedom the day after his arrest. “There are two or three people named Abul Hossen in the village. Anyone of them might have stolen the cattle, but I can vouch for the arrested Abul Hossen that he did not do this crime.”

Whether Hossen is a Christian, Muslim or Hindu should not matter in the eyes of the law, Rahman said.

“He is an innocent man,” he said. “So he should not be punished or harassed. That is why I went to police station to request police to free him.”

Local government Union Council Chairman Shamcharan Roy, a Hindu from Lakmichap Union, told Compass that Hossen was not engaged in any kind of criminal activities.

“In my eight years of tenure as a union council chairman, I did not find him engaged in any kind of criminal activities,” said Shamcharan Roy. “Even before my tenure as a chairman, I did not see him troublesome in the social matrix.”

Immediately after Hossen’s arrest, Shamcharan Roy went to the police station and requested that he be freed, he added.

“I was under pressure from local people to free him from custody – more than 100 villagers went to the police camp, getting drenched to the skin in the heavy downpour, and requested police to free him,” Shamcharan Roy said. “Police are listening to a thief but are deaf to our factual accounts about Abul Hossen.”

In July 2007, local Muslims and Tabligh Jamat missionaries gathered in a schoolyard near the homes of some of the Christians who had been baptized on June 12, a source said. Using a microphone, the Muslims threatened violence if the converts did not come out.

Fearing for their lives, the Christians emerged and gathered. The source said the Muslims asked them why they had become Christians and, furious, told them that Bangladesh was a Muslim country “where you cannot change your faith by your own will.”

At that time, Hossen told Compass that Muslims in the mosque threatened to hang him in a tree upside down and lacerate his body with a blade. Hossen said the Muslims “do not allow us to net fish in the river” and offered him 5,000 taka (US$75) and a mobile phone handset if he returned to Islam.

“But I did not give up my faith, because I found Christ in my heart,” Hossen told Compass in 2007. “They threatened me with severe consequences if I do not go back to Islam. I said I am ready to offer up my life to Christ, but I won’t renounce my faith in Him.”

Report from Compass Direct News

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

Plinky Prompt: When was the Last Time that You Thanked Someone?


The last time I thanked someone was probably this morning when I bought the morning papers. However, the last time I thanked someone with strong meaning, rather than just a simple (though real) thank you, was on Thursday last week. The occasion of my giving thanks was when a person gave me a bicycle because they knew mine was no longer any good and I was therefore completely without transport. So I was very thankful for this very kind gesture.

Christian Child Abducted, Forced into Bonded Labor in Pakistan


Muslim landowner offers to remove chains from 11-year-old boy if he converts to Islam.

WAZIRABAD, Pakistan, June 21 (CDN) — An 11-year-old Christian boy here is growing weak and ill from malnutrition from working in slave-like conditions for a Muslim landowner who kidnapped him and is forcing him to work off his family’s debts, his mother told Compass.

Katherine Bibi said landowner Ashraf Cheema of Dhonikay village, Wazirabad, has offered her son better conditions and possibly cancellation of the debt if he will convert to Islam.

“He is frequently invited to convert to Islam by Ashraf Cheema, and in return he is promised that he will be freed from the iron chains and his work will be eased and he will be served better meals,” she said. “Cheema has said, ‘The debt of your father and brother might also be forgiven if you convert.’”

Young Danish Masih works without break from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., often in iron chains, on half a loaf of bread per day, according to Dawood Masih of the National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP).

“Due to the lack of sleep and immense physical and mental pressure, he is becoming weaker and ill,” Dawood Masih said. “And he is doing this bonded labor without any kind of leave, including sick leave, for the last one-and-a-half years, in place of his father Riaz Masih and elder brother Adnan Kashif.”

The boy’s father and older brother had been working for Cheema to pay off a debt of 142,000 rupees (US$1,640), but their employer was neither paying their monthly wages nor deducting the amounts from their debt, said Emmanuel Berkat Gill of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA). Riaz Masih’s monthly wage was 3,000 rupees (US$35), and Adnan Kashif earned 2,500 rupees (US$29) per month.

Cheema also extorted land worth 35,000 rupees (US$404) from the boy’s older brother, again without deducting the amount from their debt, and ransacked the family’s house in Ali Naggar village, stealing Katherine Bibi’s dowry worth 200,000 rupees (US$2,308), she and Gill said.  

“Being a rich, powerful and influential Muslim landowner, Cheema did all of this and also had the cruelty to not deduct the amount from the debt,” Gill said.

Suffering under Cheema in this way, the family decided to flee to Islamabad, 165 miles (102 miles) away, Katherine Bibi said. About 18 months ago, however, the peaceful life they had begun anew was shattered when Cheema abducted their youngest son, also known as Mithu, and took him to his farmhouse at Dhonikay village near Ali Naggar in Wazirabad.

“After all these cruelties, Ashraf Cheema owes us some amount, rather than us owing him,” an inconsolable Katherine Bibi told Compass by telephone.   

She has gone to court to recover her son – both her husband and older son do not risk provoking Cheema by attaching their names to the case – and on June 10 District and Sessions Judge Chaudhary Muhammad Ilyas sent a bailiff to Cheema’s farm to secure the return of the 11-year-old.

“But the bailiff returned unsuccessfully without Mithu, as Ashraf Cheema, being an influential and rich landowner, was told beforehand about the raid by an anonymous insider, and he hid the child,” Katherine Bibi said.

She said that since the bailiff failed to recover her son, Cheema has hurled threats at her and her husband, saying, “After this raid by the bailiff, you will neither be able to get back your son, nor will you be granted a cancellation for your debt.”

After joint efforts by Gill of APMA and Dawood Masih of the NCJP, however, Cheema agreed that if Riaz Masih would work in place of his son, he would release the child, Gill said. When Gill, Dawood Masih and Riaz Masih went to Cheema’s farmhouse, however, the landowner went back on his word and refused to hand over the boy.

Contacted by Compass, Cheema said that no such boy works at his farm or fields, and that “someone must have misled you.”

Besides the court recognition of the abduction, however, Gill and other credible sources assert that Danish Masih works from dawn to dusk under a sizzling summer sun without any break or meal.

At press time local Christian leaders had petitioned the deputy superintendent police of Wazirabad to recover Danish Masih.

Report from Compass Direct News

Tehran begins crackdown in advance of bloody anniversary


Iran is taking steps to quell protests as the anniversary of the disputed presidential election nears, reports MNN.

Multiple sources report they’re aggressively deploying paramilitary members, re-arresting activists, and enforcing certain bans on mingling of the sexes and un-Islamic women’s clothing.

The crackdown speaks to the oppressive nature of the government. It also means that everyone is under scrutiny, especially Christians.

In the best of times, the open witness of the Gospel is banned, and government spies monitor Christian groups. Believers face discrimination in education, employment, and property ownership.

However, with the increased scrutiny, discipling becomes dangerous work. Church leaders will continue to cultivate growth in the body of Christ, knowing that those who commit apostasy (turning away from Islam to another faith) face prison, abuse or the death penalty. Evangelist Sammy Tippit explains, "These are people who are from Muslim backgrounds who have come to know Christ. So the only thing they can get is from an outside source."

Believers are often isolated because they can’t worship together in a traditional church. That’s where Tippit’s teaching programs are extremely effective via satellite television. He says, "We need to pray that God will encourage them, will strengthen them, and give them the stamina in the face of great challenge."

Tippit recently met with a group of church leaders outside of Iran in order to encourage them and to let them know they’re not forgotten. "God met with us in an incredible way. Of course, they were hungry, and they were thirsty–these believers. And these were leaders."

Tippit says, "The only thing that the church can do is encourage them, pray for them, and try to give them some kind of biblical foundation that would enable them to claim the promises of God in the midst of suffering."

Report from the Christian Telegraph