Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park


Evicted from one site and denied others, unregistered congregation resorts to open air.

LOS ANGELES, April 7 (CDN) — One of the largest unregistered Protestant churches in Beijing plans to risk arrest by worshipping in the open air this Sunday (April 10) after eviction from the restaurant where they have met for the past year.

The owner of the Old Story Club restaurant issued repeated requests for the Shouwang Church to find another worship venue, and authorities have pressured other prospective landlords to close their facilities to the 1,000-member congregation, sources said. Unwilling to subject themselves to the controls and restrictions of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the congregation has held three services each Sunday in the restaurant for more than a year.

Church members have said they are not opposed to the government and are not politically active, but they fear authorities could find their open-air worship threatening.

“Normal” (state-sanctioned) religious assembly outdoors is legal in China, and even unregistered church activity is usually tolerated if no more than 50 people gather, especially if the people are related and can cite the gathering as a family get-together, said a source in China who requested anonymity. Although the congregation technically risks arrest as an unregistered church, the primary danger is being viewed as politically active, the source said.

“For a larger group of Christians to meet in any ‘unregistered’ location led by an ‘unregistered’ leader is illegal,” he said. “The sensitivity of meeting in a park is not being illegal, but being so highly visible. Being ‘visible’ ends up giving an impression of being a political ‘protest.’”

The congregation believes China’s Department of Religious Affairs has overstepped its jurisdiction in issuing regulations limiting unregistered church activity, according to a statement church leaders issued this week.

“Out of respect for both the Chinese Constitution [whose Article 36 stipulates freedom of worship] and Christian conscience, we cannot actively endorse and submit to the regulations which bid us to cease all Sunday worship activities outside of [the] ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement’ – the only state-sanctioned church,” according to the statement. “Of course, we still must follow the teachings of the Bible, which is for everyone to submit to and respect the governing authorities. We are willing to submit to the regulations with passivity and all the while shoulder all the consequences which . . . continuing to worship outside of what is sanctioned by these regulations will bring us.”

The church decided to resort to open-air worship after a prospective landlord backed out of a contractual agreement to allow the congregation to meet at the Xihua Business Hotel, the church said in its statement.

“They had signed another rental contract with another property facility and announced during the March 22 service that they were to move in two weeks,” the source said. “In spite of the fact that they had signed a formal contract, the new landlord suddenly called them on March 22 and refused to let them use the facility.”

The landlord offered various excuses for reneging on the contract, according to church leaders, and that disappointment came after 15 months of trying to obtain the key to another property the church had purchased.

“The space in Daheng New Epoch Technology building, which the church had spent over 27.5 million RMB [US$4.2 million] to purchase, has failed to hand the key over to the church for the past year and three months because of government intervention,” the church said in its statement. “For the past year, our church has not had a settled meeting place.”

Beginning as a house church in 1993, the Shouwang Church has been evicted from several rented locations. It also met outside after its last displacement in 2009. The congregation does not believe its calling is to split up into smaller units.

“For the past several years the church has been given a vision from God to be ‘the city on a hill,’” the source said. “Especially since 2009, when they officially began the church building purchase, they have been trying to become a more officially established status. At this point, they feel that they have not completed the journey in obedience to God.”

The number of Protestant house church Christians is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute. Yu and others have concluded that house churches are a positive influence on society, but the government is wary of such influence.

Yu estimated another 18 to 30 million people attend government-approved churches – potentially putting the number of Christians higher than that of Communist Party members, which number around 74 million.

The government-commissioned study by Yu and associates suggested that officials should seek to integrate house churches and no longer regard them as enemies of the state. The study employed a combination of interviews, field surveys and policy reviews to gather information on house churches in several provinces from October 2007 to November 2008.

Yu’s team found that most house or “family” churches fit into one of three broad categories: traditional house churches, open house churches or urban emerging churches. Traditional house churches were generally smaller, family-based churches, meeting in relative secrecy. Though not a Christian himself, Yu attended some of these meetings and noted that the focus was not on democracy or human rights but rather on spiritual life and community.

The “open” house churches were less secretive and had more members, sometimes advertising their services and holding public gatherings, he found. Urban emerging churches functioned openly but independently of TSPM churches. In some provinces such as Wenzhou, these churches had constructed their own buildings and operated without interference from local officials.

While some house churches actively seek registration with authorities to avoid arrests and harassment, they would like the option of registering outside the government-approved TSPM structure, as they disagree with TSPM beliefs and controls. Many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members or fear that it will control sermon content.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Plinky Prompt: Your House is on Fire. Which Keepsake Items do You Grab, and Why?


Lap Top Computer and Portable Drive
My memories are stored on these items – as well as the ability to reach them via online stored locations like Flickr, etc. These would be my main concern.

Powered by Plinky

Church under Attack in Indonesia Agrees to Change Venue


Congregation accepts offer under condition that government build them permanent building.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 29 (CDN) — A West Java church has agreed to move temporarily to a government-selected site following Islamist harassment that included a Sept. 12 attack on two of its leaders.

The Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) in Ciketing village, Bekasi, decided in a congregational meeting on Sunday (Sept. 26) to accept a government offer to move worship services to the former Organization and Political Party (OPP) building on the condition that local officials will keep a promise to build a new house of worship for them within two years in the Mustika Sari district.

The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak, who received hospital treatment after she was struck with a wooden plank by suspected Islamic extremists in the Sept. 12 attack, said that the church was ready to stop struggling.

“We are tired of being intimidated and terrorized,” Pastor Simanjuntak said. “We will be able to worship quietly and peacefully.”

Church lawyer Saor Siagian said that the church had accepted the temporary move with the understanding that the Bekasi municipal government must fulfill its pledge. The government will build a new church building to replace the structure the church is leaving on a 2,500-square meter lot belonging to PT Timah, the Government Tin Mining Co. in the Mustika Sari area of Bekasi. The lot is zoned for general and social facilities.

The government had suggested two alternative locations: the PT Timah lot and a 1,900-square meter parcel in the Strada Housing area. The congregation and leaders of HKBP Ciketing chose the PT Timah property.

The first HKBP Ciketing worship service in the former OPP Building took place without incident on Sunday, with the Bekasi government providing buses to transport the congregation to the new site. Pastor Simanjuntak said the congregation is thankful for the new temporary site, but it does not accommodate the entire congregation. The 10-meter by 14-meter building accommodates 250 people, but normally 300 attend services, and some had to stand outside, she said.

Dozens of police guarded the location.

Zaki Oetomo, a Bekasi city official, told Compass that the building could be used rent-free for two years, with an extension possible if the church desired. The government has offered to provide the buses to transport the congregation to and from the site every week.

 

20-Year Wait

The Ciketing church originally met in the Pondok Timur Indah housing development with 10 families in 1990, and therefore has generally been called the HKBP Pondok Timur Indah.

“By 1995 it had grown to 30 families,” Manorangi Siahaan, a church member, told Compass.

In those days the worship services were held in different members’ homes. Manorangi acknowledged that the house church worship did spark some small protests.

Between 1990 and 2010, the church leaders requested building permits three separate times, in 1995, 2000 and 2010. Not once did the local government respond, church leaders said.  

By 2005 the congregation had grown to 150, and church leaders bought a 2,170-square meter lot in Ciketing village, near Bekasi City, to construct a church building. They built a semi-permanent structure, which was later torn down because they lacked a building permit under pressure from an Islamic group claiming to speak for the local citizens. As a result, the congregation went back to worshipping in homes on a rotating basis.

In 2007 the congregation had grown to 300 people. They bought a house in Pondok Timur Indah, in the Mustika Jaya area of Bekasi City, to use for worship. The Bekasi government sealed the house on March 1 under pressure from Islamic groups. On July 2, the government sealed the house a second time because the congregation was continuing to worship there. Then on July 11, the church was forced to move their worship service to a vacant property in Ciketing, which had been readied for a church building. This site was about 3 kilometers from their property in Pondok Timur Indah.

Protests by Islamic groups mounted each Sunday at the Ciketing site, culminating in the attack on Pastor Simanjuntak and elder Hasian Sihombing, who was stabbed in the stomach and heart.

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

Afghan parliamentarian calls for execution of Christians


International Christian Concern (ICC) has told the ASSIST News Service (ANS) that it has learned that an Afghan parliamentary secretary has called for the public execution of Christian converts from the parliament floor, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

On Tuesday, the Associated Free Press reported that Abdul Sattar Khawasi, deputy secretary of the Afghan lower house in parliament, called for the execution of Christian converts from Islam.

Speaking in regards to a video broadcast by the Afghan television network Noorin TV showing footage of Christian men being baptized and praying in Farsi, Khawasi said, “Those Afghans that appeared in this video film should be executed in public. The house should order the attorney general and the NDS (intelligence agency) to arrest these Afghans and execute them.”

An ICC spokesperson said, “The broadcast triggered a protest by hundreds of Kabul University students on Monday, who shouted death threats and demanded the expulsion of Christian foreigners accused of proselytizing.

"As a result, the operations of Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and U.S.-based Church World Service (CWS) have been suspended over allegations of proselytizing. The Afghan government is currently undertaking an intensive investigation into the matter.

"According to Afghan law, proselytizing is illegal and conversion from Islam is punishable by death.”

ICC sources within Afghanistan have reported that many national Christians are in hiding, fearful of execution. Under government pressure during investigations, some Afghans have reportedly revealed names and locations of Christian converts.

Aidan Clay, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, “It is absolutely appalling that the execution of Christians would be promoted on the floor of the Afghan parliament. Khawasi’s statement sounded a whole lot like the tyrannical manifesto of the Taliban not that of a U.S. ally. American lives are being lost fighting terrorism and defending freedom in Afghanistan – yet Christians are being oppressed within Afghan borders.

“This comes after billions of U.S. dollars have been invested in the war effort, and millions more have been given in aid. The U.S. government must intervene to protect the religious freedoms and human rights of all Afghans. The U.S. is not a mere outside bystander – but, is closely intertwined within Afghan policy.”

Clay added, “Intervention is not a choice, but a responsibility, as Afghan policies reflect the U.S. government’s ability and commitment to secure a stable government in Afghanistan.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Iran: government security forces burned hundreds of Bibles


Ati News, a site belonging to Morteza Talaee who is the previous head of the security forces and the current member of the Tehran’s city council, in its usual anti-Christian propaganda reported that their social-life reporter had disclosed that shipments of so called, "Perverted Torah and Gospels" had entered Iran through its Western borders, reports FCNN.

Two days later, on May 31st, the same report was reiterated by the official anti-crime website of the Pasdaran Army called "Gerdaub" that a large shipment of Jewish and Christian Scriptures has entered Iran through the Western Azerbaijan province and according to security officials of that province the "occupier forces" that operate in the Western regions of Iraq were responsible for such activities.

Gerdaub, the official website of the Pasdaran Army continued its report by quoting the security official who had stated that:

Some of these books are distributed locally, but most of the books are smuggled and distributed all over the country. In just the last few months, hundreds of such "perverted Bibles" have been seized and burned in the border town of Sardasht.

The same unidentified security source adds that his intention has been to inform and enlighten people.

While the depiction of the Prophet of Islam and other historical religious leaders, whether in good or bad taste, has caused uproar and violent protests, threats of retaliation and assassinations, closure of embassies, long and mournful marches in various parts of countries of the world such as Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, its quite interesting that the official website of the most powerful military wing of the Islamic Republic of Iran engages in the shameful act of reporting the burning
of Bibles.

Of course, the security officials have not clarified the difference between these so called "perverted Bibles" and those that are commonly used by people around the world – including Iran.

These officials shamefully label the Holy Scriptures of the Christians contraband without realizing the over two billion people around the world and at least five hundred thousand people in Iran revere and consider holy. This action is no different than what the government has wrongfully accused many Christians of insulting the sacred beliefs of Islam.

On the hand the defenders of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the international organizations and human rights forums claim that religious minorities such as Jews and Christians enjoy constitutional protection and the adherents of these religions not only can elect their own representatives to the parliament, but exercise their religious rights freely and openly. But, as with many other rights and freedoms granted to the people in the constitution, this fundamental right has also been violated
and repressed by the Islamic government.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic not only use the weapon of their pre-selected parliamentary candidates to control who gets into the legislature, but severely suppresses the religious minorities by demanding the names of those attending church services, banning the entry of Farsi-speaking members into church building and any preaching in the Farsi language, rejecting any building permits for church buildings, and the publishing of Bibles and other Christian literature which amounts to nothing
but direct interference in the religious affairs of the very people it claims to be protecting.

For these reasons Christians have taken refuge at homes and congregate in home-style churches form small home-based churches. Even then, many of these Christians are harassed and often pursued by security agents and are arrested and detained. Many Christian leaders have been detained for long periods of time in undisclosed locations and often very expensive bails have to be posted to secure their freedom.

The question remains as to how long the Christian community outside of Iran can tolerate such persecutions and atrocities? Moreover, and not withstanding the fact that Iranian Christians do not have the right to publish their holy scriptures, those Christians from around the world who donate Bibles to their brothers and sisters inside Iran are insulted by labeling their donated Bibles as contraband and burned by the security agents.

It is only appropriate that the official website of the Pasdaran army that has published this report and has confirmed the validity of this news through one of its security agents be condemned by the international Christian community and the world to demand the identification of those perpetrated this shameful act.

Such insults and offensive actions in burning the Christian Bible coincides with the Islamic community’s full enjoyment, freedom, and the blessings of the Western nations that allow them to publish the Islamic Holy Book, the Quran, and to build as many mosques as its needed in various European and North America cities.

The Quran states that the Torah and the Gospels are Holy Scriptures as well. Nevertheless, the Islamic leaders claim that the Bibles used by Christians and Jews are not the authentic scriptures but have been changed by the church. Considering the fact that the Quran also states that no man can destroy the word of God, the question remains that if the currently used Bible is, as the Islamic leaders so claim, a changed and untrustworthy document where is the real Torah and the Gospels?

If the Quranic claim that the word of God can never be perverted and changed, then there must be a copy of the real Torah and the Gospels somewhere. To this question Muslims have not credible answers. There is no such difference or variance between today’s Scriptures and the original writings. Our modern Bibles go back to the very ancient copies of the scriptures that in some cases date back to only 50 years from Christ Himself. There are even copies of the Old Testament that date several hundred
years before Christ.

Definitely and for sure, one can not find any ancient writings that have been as carefully and precisely copied and preserved as the Bible has been. There are thousands of ancient manuscripts in world museums that testify to this fact. Therefore the claim that the Bible is a changed and false scripture is totally baseless and is nothing but a ploy to confuse and mislead people by the Islamic leaders.

In any event, the burning of any book, especially one that is honored and revered by a great majority of people around the world, is an unacceptable and immoral act and must be condemned by the world community.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground


Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.

Banned

Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Deadline for re-registration passes; churches face illegal status


Oppressive new laws in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan required religious communities to re-register with the government by January 1, 2010 or face illegal status. As of December 16, only about 100 of Azerbaijan’s 534 religious communities had been able to do so. Fewer than half of Tajikistan’s religious communities re-registered, reports MNN.

According to Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association, officials place obstructions in the paths of churches trying to re-register.

"They will find some technicality or basically any reason to deny registration. So even if some of the groups actually follow the law to the letter and meet the requirements, it just seems very arbitrary and capricious as to whether the officials will agree to register to not," he explained.

It’s unclear how strictly the governments of the two nations will enforce their laws.

"In the worst case scenario…they could basically close congregations down and impose pretty stiff penalties," Griffith said. "In the best case scenario…unless they agree to fully repeal these statues or amend these laws, I think we need to just hope and pray that even though they’re on the books, these things won’t be enforced."

That’s often the case in countries that have similar laws. The new laws include other burdensome requirements in addition to the re-registration mandate. Azerbaijan’s law requires religious communities to provide more information for registration and to obtain approval to build or rebuild places of worship. It also prohibits the sale of religious literature in unapproved locations and religious activity outside registered addresses.

Tajikistan’s religion law censors religious literature, bans state officials from founding religious communities, requires state approval to invite foreigners for religious visits or to travel abroad for religious events, and restricts children’s religious activity and education.

Christians in Azerbaijan are especially concerned about how courts might interpret unclear provisions in the law. They fear a loose interpretation could penalize "peaceful religious activity." Griffith quoted a passage from the law and explained the issue.

"‘The community formulates its relations with other religious confessions on the basis of religious toleration (tolerance), respect and the avoidance of conflict,’ and the community cannot use violence or the threat of violence in proclaiming its faith. Well, if you don’t define those terms, such as ‘respect and the avoidance of conflict’…you could almost say that Christian evangelism could even be illegal under a formulation like that."

Since Christians believe in only one means of salvation — Jesus Christ — it would be entirely possible for disagreement with other religious groups to be interpreted as "conflict." However, Christians are not the only people worried about the potential impact of the law.

"It’s not just Christians that are concerned; we’ve got Muslim groups that are concerned. These are largely Muslim nations," Griffith said. "I think there are a number of people that are concerned about what this will possibly do down the road."

No matter what does happen, the Christian church will remain committed to the Gospel.

"Regardless of what happens in these countries, the churches still have their marching orders from the Lord: to proclaim the Gospel," Griffith said. "And no matter what man does, they’re going to continue to proclaim the Gospel."

Christians in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan need the prayers and support of their fellow believers. SGA has been supporting churches in the former Soviet Union for 75 years, and it continues to support churches in these two countries.

"It’s important to help them take advantage of every open door they can find to share the Gospel," Griffith said. "It might be through supporting a church-planting missionary; it might be through providing Russian-language Bibles and literature; it may be through helping to support in-country training, and sometimes that training has to take place quietly…. But for churches here in the West that have the resources, it’s important to support our brothers and sisters there who don’t have the resources that we do."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Seminary Students in Indonesia Evicted from Two Locations


Forced departure from campground and office building leads to demonstration, arrests, injuries.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 30 (CDN) — In the past week hundreds of students from Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) were evicted from two sites where they had taken refuge after Muslim protestors drove them from their campus last year. 

With about 700 students earlier evicted from Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground, officers appointed by the West Jakarta District Court on Monday (Oct. 26) began evacuating more than 300 students from the former municipal building of West Jakarta.

In response, the more than 1,000 evicted SETIA students demonstrated in West Jakarta on Tuesday (Oct. 27), clogging traffic and leading to altercations with police that led to the arrest of at least five students. Six officers were injured.

The eviction from the former West Jakarta mayoral building came after the city settled accounts last week with the Sawerigading Foundation, which officially gained ownership of the site from the city after a long court dispute. The foundation plans to build apartments on the land, a 13,765 square-meter parcel with six buildings.

Demonstrating in front of the buildings, the students formed a blockade. A bulldozer began to level buildings, and students began throwing plastic chairs and rocks at police. Officers responded with tear gas that dispersed the crowd.

“Five people were arrested and taken for questioning by the West Jakarta Police,” Police Commissioner Djoni Iskandar told Compass at the site. The identities of the five students were not known at press time, although the head of the student senate, Alexander Dimu, said that one was identified as Adi Siwa.

Traffic Police Chief Commissioner Sungkono, who goes by a single name, told Compass that two traffic officers and four security policeman were injured by objects the students had thrown.

“Brigade Chief Charles and Sudiyanto had just gotten out of a car when they were hit by flying objects,” he said. “The same was true of four other police: Diak, Arif, Luki, and Mardiana, who had injuries to their hands, feet, and a torn lip.”

Inadequate Alternatives

The students were originally driven from their school when hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26-27, 2008.

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

The Jakarta provincial government has offered to house students at a city-owned office building in North Jakarta that SETIA officials said was unfit for habitation.

“A barn for water buffalo is much nicer than that place,” Ronald Simanjuntak secretary of the SETIA Foundation, told Compass.

The building has broken windows, non-functioning toilets, a roof that is in disrepair, and a bare cement floor, he said, adding that major renovations would be necessary.

“Our primary request is that we be allowed to return to our own campus peacefully,” Simanjuntak said. “We were in the old West Jakarta mayor’s office because the provincial government sent us there. Don’t imagine that we were trying to take over that place.”

An inspection of the North Jakarta building by representatives from the SETIA Foundation, the Sawerigading Foundation, and city officials found the building was uninhabitable and unsuitable for classes, said SETIA’s rector, the Rev. Matheus Mangentang.

“So the solution is to return us to our campus,” Rev. Mangentang told Compass. “[The North Jakarta building] needs months of renovation work; it was supposed to be torn down.”

The area secretary for the Jakarta Provincial Government who goes by a single name, Muhayat, told Compass that suitability “is a relative thing.”

“Why is the place unsuitable?” he said. “Is it the location?”

According to Muhayat, the Jakarta government plans to sell a property that would allow it to provide proceeds for construction of a new SETIA campus in the Lippo area of Cikarang, West Java Province. Officials hope a sale could be completed late this year, allowing construction to begin in early 2010.

“The students need to be patient and not act unilaterally,” Muhayat said. “The provincial government and the [SETIA] Foundation are in the midst of working on a new campus.”

The students would like to return to their former campus in Kampung Pulo, East Jakarta, with assurances of safety and security from the vice-governor, but area residents reportedly remain hostile.

SETIA’s Simanjuntak said that if students are forced to the North Jakarta building, school officials would ask the Sawerigading Foundation for time to renovate it. Sawerigading has offered 250 million rupiahs (US$26,000) to SETIA for renovations.

Of the total SETIA students, another 297 are still living at the Transit Lodge in Kalimalang, East Jakarta.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Theology Students in Indonesia to be Evicted from Campground


Government stops paying rent for site where students were driven more than a year ago.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 20 (CDN) — Approximately 700 students from Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) are facing eviction at the end of the month from a campground where Muslim protestors drove them last year.

Education will end for students who have been living in 11 large tents and studying in the open air at Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground, many of them for more than a year. Hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26-27, 2008.

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

The Jakarta provincial government has ceased paying the rental fee of the campsite in East Jakarta, a bill that now totals 2.7 billion rupiahs (US$280,000), which camp officials said will result in the eviction of the students and the end of their studies at the end of the month.

At the beginning of the month, camp officials cut off electricity and water; as a result, the students have had to go 1,500 meters to bathe and use the toilet in the Cibubur marketplace. Additionally, several of the student tents were taken down. In spite of the conditions, sources said, the students have maintained their enthusiasm and no one has quit the school.

SETIA officials said camp management rejected their request for an extension.

“The electricity and the water were cut off after the Cibubur campground managers rejected Arastamar’s request,” said Yusuf Lifire, SETIA administrator.

Other students at the seminary have taken temporary shelter in the other parts of greater Jakarta. Those living quarters, however, are so overcrowded that some of the students have become ill.

Umar Lubis, head of BUPERTA campground, said camp officials have provided the students great leeway and shown great tolerance in the year that rent has not been paid.

“We have provided water, electricity, and other facilities,” Lubis told Compass. “However, Jakarta Province has not paid us campground rental since October 2008. The government did pay 700 million rupiahs [US$75,000], but that only covered the rental fees through September 2008.”

Muhayat, area secretary of Jakarta Province who goes by a single name, told Compass that beginning in October 2008, the provincial government was no longer responsible for campsite rental for the SETIA students. The provincial government made this decision, he said, because the seminary refused to move to Jonggol, Bogor, West Java, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the old campus.

“We offered to move them to Jonggol, but Arastamar took a hard line and wanted to be in Jakarta,” Muhayat said.

The Rev. Matheus Mangentang, rector of SETIA, said that they refused to move to Jonggol because their school permit was for Jakarta.

“If we moved to Jonggol, we would have to get a new permit,” Mangentang told Compass. “We suspect that this would be an extremely difficult process.”

Illness Strikes

Many students are suffering from respiratory and other illnesses, and some have breast cancer. The sick are being cared for at the Christian University of Indonesia hospital.

One of the students living at the BUPERTA campground told Compass that many of the students had fever from mosquito bites.

“When it rains here, we sleep on water and mud,” said a 21-year-old student who identified herself only as Siska. Her statements were echoed by a Christian education major named Ahasyweros.

“We struggle daily in a place like this – especially after our request was turned down,” the student said. “We don’t know where we are going to go. We hope that the Jakarta provincial government will have the heart to help us.”

The staff and students were forced from their campus by a mob that claimed to be acting for the local citizens of Pulo Kampung, Makasar District, East Jakarta last year. Key among motives for the attack was that area Muslims felt “disturbed” by the presence of the Christian college. They wanted it to be moved to another area.

The approximately 1,300 seminary students were placed in three locations: 760 at the BUPERTA campground, 330 at the Kalimalang Transit Lodge, and 220 at the former office of the mayor of West Jakarta.

The fate of the students at all locations was similar; they were overcrowded and short on water, and overall facilities were substandard.

Jakarta Vice-Gov. Prijanto, who goes by a single name, had promised to find a solution. He had also stated that the government was ready to help and would pay for the students’ room and board, but this has not been the case.

Mangentang said he continues to hope for good will from the Jakarta government, which he said should return the school to its original site in Pulo Kampung. 

“Even if there is talk in the provincial government that the locals don’t accept us, we still want to go back,” he said. “After we are back, then we would be prepared to talk and negotiate about the future. Healthy discussions are not possible if we are not back in our own home. If we tried to talk now, while we are trampled upon and pressured, nothing healthy would result. It is better that we return to our own place so that we can talk at the same level.”

Report from Compass Direct News