Anti-Christian Sentiment Marks Journey for Bhutan’s Exiles


Forced from Buddhist homeland, dangers arise in Hindu-majority Nepal.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 23 (CDN) — Thrust from their homes in Bhutan after Buddhist rulers embarked on an ethnic and religious purge, Christian refugees in Nepal face hostilities from Hindus and others.

In Sunsari district in southeastern Nepal, a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, residents from the uneducated segments of society are especially apt to attack Christians, said Purna Kumal, district coordinator for Awana Clubs International, which runs 41 clubs in refugee camps to educate girls about the Bible.

“In Itahari, Christians face serious trouble during burials,” Kumal told Compass. “Last month, a burial party was attacked by locals who dug up the grave and desecrated it.”

Earlier this month, he added, a family in the area expelled one of its members from their home because he became a Christian.

Bhutan began expelling almost one-eighth of its citizens for being of Nepali origin or practicing faiths other than Buddhism in the 1980s. The purge lasted into the 1990s.

“Christians, like Hindus and others, were told to leave either their faith or the country,” said Gopi Chandra Silwal, who pastors a tiny church for Bhutanese refugees in a refugee camp in Sanischare, a small village in eastern Nepal’s Morang district. “Many chose to leave their homeland.”

Persecution in Bhutan led to the spread of Christianity in refugee camps in Nepal. Though exact figures are not available, refugee Simon Gazmer estimates there are about 7,000-8,000 Christians in the camps – out of a total refugee population of about 85,000 – with many others having left for other countries. There are 18 churches of various faiths in the camps, he said.

“Faith-healing was an important factor in the spread of Christianity in the camps,” said Gazmer, who belongs to Believers’ Church and is awaiting his turn to follow five members of his family to Queensland, Australia. “A second reason is the high density in the camps.”

Each refugee family lives in a single-room hut, with one outdoor toilet for every two families. The Nepalese government forbids them to work for fear it will create unemployment for local residents.

Life was even harder for them before 2006, when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom where conversions were a punishable offence.

“When I began preaching in 2000, I had to do it secretly,” said Pastor Silwal of Morang district. “We could meet only surreptitiously in small groups. I used my hut as a make-shift church while many other groups were forced to rent out rooms outside the camp.”

A fact-finding mission in 2004 by Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers found that police pulled down a church structure built by Pentecostal Christians in the Beldangi camp by orders of Nepal’s home ministry. The rights group also reported that Hindu refugees ostracized the Christians, who had proceeded to rent a room outside the camp to meet three times a week for worship services and Bible study.

When the Jesus Loves Gospel Ministries (JLGM) organization sent officials from India to the Pathri camp in Morang in 2006, they found that local residents resentful of the refugees had taken note of a baptism service at a pond in a nearby jungle.

“In August, we were planning another baptism program,” JLGM director Robert Singh reported. “But the villagers put deadly poisonous chemicals in the water … Some of the young people went to take a bath ahead of our next baptism program. They found some fish floating on the water and, being very hungry – the refugees only get a very small ration, barely enough to survive on – they took some of the fish and ate them. Three of them died instantly.”

Singh also stated that poisoned sweets were left on the premises of the refugee school in the camp. They were discovered in time to avert another tragedy.

Life for Christian refugees improved after Nepal saw a pro-democracy movement in 2006 that caused the army-backed government of Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to collapse. The king was forced to reinstate parliament, and lawmakers sought to curb his powers by declaring Nepal a secular state.

Though Christian refugees are now allowed to run churches openly in the camps, ill will toward them has yet to end. When Pastor Silwal asked camp authorities to allow him to open a church in 2006, Hindu neighbors protested, saying it would cause disturbances. Camp authorities allowed him to open a tiny church in a separate room on the condition that its activities would not disturb neighbors.

Earlier in his life in Bhutan, said the 40-year-old Pastor Silwal, he had been a stern Hindu who rebuked his two sisters mercilessly for becoming Christians. He forbade them to visit their church, which gathered in secret due to the ban on non-Buddhist religions in place at the time. They were also forbidden to bring the Bible inside their house in Geylegphug, a district in southern Bhutan close to the Indian border.

“I became a believer in 1988 after a near-death experience,” Pastor Silwal told Compass. “I contracted malaria and was on the verge of death since no one could diagnose it. All the priests and shamans consulted by my Hindu family failed to cure me. One day, when I thought I was going to die I had a vision.”

The pastor said he saw a white-robed figure holding a Bible in one hand and beckoning to him with the other. “Have faith in me,” the figure told him. “I will cure you.”

When he woke from his trance, Silwal asked his sisters to fetch him a copy of the Bible. They were alarmed at first, thinking he was going to beat them. But at his insistence, they nervously fetched the book from the thatched roof of the cow shed where they had kept it hidden. Pastor Silwal said he tried to read the Bible but was blinded by his fever and lost consciousness.

When he awoke, to his amazement and joy, the fever that had racked him for nearly five months was gone.

Pastor Silwal lost his home in 1990 to the ethnic and religious purge that forced him to flee along with thousands of others. It wasn’t until 1998, he said, that he and his family formally converted to Christianity after seven years of grueling hardship in the refugee camp, where he saw “people dying like flies due to illness, lack of food and the cold.”

“My little son too fell ill and I thought he would die,” Silwal said. “But he was cured; we decided to embrace Christianity formally.”

Homeless

In 2001, Bhutan4Christ reported the number of Bhutanese Christians to be around 19,000, with the bulk of them – more than 10,500 – living in Nepal.

When persecution by the Bhutanese government began, frightened families raced towards towns in India across the border. Alarmed by the influx of Bhutanese refugees, Indian security forces packed them into trucks and dumped them in southern Nepal.

Later, when the homesick refugees tried to return home, Indian security forces blocked the way. There were several rounds of scuffles, resulting in police killing at least three refugees.

Simon Gazmer was seven when his family landed at the bank of the Mai river in Jhapa district in southeastern Nepal. Now 24, he still remembers the desolation that reigned in the barren land, where mists and chilly winds rose from the river, affecting the morale and health of the refugees. They lived in bamboo shacks with thin plastic sheets serving as roofs; they had little food or medicine.

“My uncle Padam Bahadur had tuberculosis, and we thought he would die,” said Gazmer, who lives in Beldangi II, the largest of seven refugee camps. “His recovery made us realize the grace of God, and our family became Christians.”

The plight of the refugees improved after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in, receiving permission from the government of Nepal to run the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there were 111,631 registered refugees in seven camps run in the two districts of Jhapa and Morang.

Though Nepal held 15 rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan for the repatriation of the refugees, the Buddhist government dragged its feet, eventually breaking off talks. Meantime, international donors assisting the refugee camps began to grow weary, resulting in the slashing of aid and food. Finally, seven western governments – Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands – persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in third countries.

The exodus of the refugees started in 2007. Today, according to the UNHCR, more than 26,000 have left for other countries, mostly the United States. A substantial number of the nearly 85,000 people left in the camps are ready to follow suit.

Although they now have a new life to look forward to, many of Bhutan’s Christian refugees are saddened by the knowledge that their homeland still remains barred to them. So some are looking at the next best thing: a return to Nepal, now that it is secular, where they will feel more at home than in the West.

“I don’t have grand dreams,” said Pastor Silwal. “In Australia I want to enroll in a Bible college and become a qualified preacher. Then I want to return to Nepal to spread the word of God.”  

Report from Compass Direct News 

Church Registration in Vietnam Inches Along


Assemblies of God obtains ‘operating license,’ but quest for recognition continues.

HO CHI MINH CITY, October 23 (CDN) — The Assemblies of God (AoG) in Vietnam on Monday (Oct. 19) received an “operating license,” which the government described as “the first step . . . before becoming officially legal.”

This operating license gives permission for all of the congregations of the Vietnam AoG to “carry on religious activity” anywhere in the country for the next year. During this time the church body must prepare a doctrinal statement, a constitution and bylaws and a four-year working plan to be approved by the government before being allowed to hold an organizing assembly. These steps, AoG leaders hope, would lead to legal recognition.

The operating license is the first one granted since five were granted two years ago. The last of those five churches, the Christian Fellowship Church, was finally allowed to hold its organizing assembly in late September. According to an internal 2008 government Protestant Training Manual obtained by church leaders, this assembly was delayed because authorities observed large discrepancies between the number of followers the group claimed and the actual number, as well as other “instability.”

Vietnam News Service reported on Sept. 29 that the Christian Fellowship Church has “30,000 believers nationwide.”

Should the AoG achieve legal recognition, it would be the ninth among some 70 Protestant groups in Vietnam and the seventh since new religion legislation touted to expedite registration was introduced in 2004.

The AoG quest was typically long, and it is not yet over. Though started in the early 1970s before the communist era, the denomination was deemed dormant by authorities after the communist takeover and restarted in 1989. Strangely, the Vietnamese religion law requires a church organization to have 20 years of stable organization before it can even be considered for legal recognition.

Though the AoG had been trying for years to register, only this year did it fulfill the 20-year requirement in the eyes of the government. Sources said AoG’s resistance to strong pressure by the government to eliminate a middle or district level of administration may also have contributed to the delay.

Ironically, the official government news report credits the Vietnam AoG with 40,000 followers, while denominational General Superintendent Samuel Lam told Compass the number is 25,000. He also said he hoped the advantages of registration would outweigh the disadvantages.

With no more operating licenses being granted, the future of registration is in a kind of limbo. Sources said a lower level of registration in which local authorities are supposed to offer permission for local congregations to carry on religious activities while the more complicated higher levels are worked out has largely failed. Only about 10 percent of the many hundreds of applications have received a favorable reply, they said, leaving most house churches vulnerable to arbitrary harassment or worse.

Leaders of all Protestant groups say that they continue to experience government resistance, as well as social pressure, whenever they preach Christ in new areas. They added that evidence is strong that the government’s aim is to contain Protestant growth.

Hmong Christians who fled the Northwest Mountainous Region for the Central Highlands a decade ago, developing very poor land in places such as Dak Nong, reported to Compass that they were singled out for land confiscation just when their fields became productive. They said ethnic Vietnamese made these land grabs with the complicity of the authorities, sometimes multiple times.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Oct. 19 that Vietnam has experienced a “sharp backsliding on religious freedom.” Among other incidents, HRW cited the late September crackdown on followers of Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Some 150 monks were forcibly evicted from his sect’s Bat Nha Monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, and 200 nuns fled in fear the next day. As in recent land disputes with Roman Catholics involving thousands of demonstrators, authorities hired local and imported thugs to do the deed to present the image that ordinary local people were upset with the religion.

After a visit to Vietnam in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States reinstate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the blacklist of religious liberty offenders. Vietnam had been on the list from 2004 until 2006.

The USCIRF, which experienced less government cooperation that on some previous visits,  observed that “Vietnam’s overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.”

Some key Protestant leaders describe themselves as weary and frustrated at what they termed the government’s lack of sincerity, extreme tardiness and outright duplicity regarding religious freedom. They too said they believe that the lifting of Vietnam’s CPC status was premature and resulted in the loss of a major incentive for Vietnam to improve religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News 

NEPAL: CHRISTIANS LITTLE CONSOLED BY ARREST IN CHURCH BOMBING


Militant group threatens more attacks unless non-Hindus leave country within month. 

KATHMANDU, Nepal, June 2 (Compass Direct News) – Vikash and Deepa Patrick had been married for nearly four months before the young couple living in Patna in eastern India managed to go on their honeymoon here. The decision to come to Nepal for four days of fun and sight-seeing would be a choice the groom will rue the rest of his life.

Vikash Patrick’s 19-year-old bride died while praying at the Assumption Church in Kathmandu valley’s Lalitpur district, the largest Catholic church in Nepal, in an anti-Christian bombing on May 23, the day they were to return home. Claiming responsibility for the violence was the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), a group wishing to restore Hinduism as the official religion of Nepal.

Patrick and two of his cousins also were injured in the explosion that ripped through the church, where nearly 400 people had turned up for a morning service.

A dazed Sun Bahadur Tamang, a 51-year-old Nepali Christian who had also gone to the church that day with his wife and daughter, pieced together the incident while awaiting treatment in a private hospital.

“We were in the prayer hall when a woman who looked to be in her 30s came and sat down next to my wife,” Tamang told Compass. “Then she got up and asked us where the toilet was. We said it was near the entrance, and she left, leaving her blue handbag behind. A little later, there was a stunning bang, and I fell on my daughter. People screamed, there was a stampede, and I couldn’t find my wife. I also realized I had lost my hearing.”

Deepa Patrick and a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Celeste Joseph, died in the explosion while 14 others, mostly women and teenagers, were injured. Another woman, Celeste’s mother Buddha Laxmi Joseph, died of a hemorrhage yesterday.

In the church hall, police found remains of the handbag as well as a pressure cooker. From 1996 to 2006, when Nepal’s underground Maoist party fought a guerrilla war against the state to overthrow monarchy and transform the world’s only Hindu kingdom into a secular republic, pressure cookers became deadly weapons in guerrilla hands. Packed with batteries, a detonator, explosives and iron nails, pressure cookers became lethal home-made bombs.

Also found scattered in the hall and outside the church were hundreds of green leaflets by an organization that until two years ago no one knew existed. Signed in the name of Ram Prasad Mainali, a 38-year-old Hindu extremist from eastern Nepal, the leaflets claimed the attack to be the handiwork of the NDA.

“A day after the explosion, a man called me up, saying he was the vice-president of the NDA,” said Bishop Narayan Sharma of the Protestant Believers’ Church in Nepal. “Though he was polite and expressed regret for the death of innocent people, he said his organization wanted the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion.”

Soon after the phone call, the NDA sent a fresh statement to Nepal’s media organizations with a distinctly militant tone. In the statement, the NDA gave “Nepal’s 1 million Christians a month’s time to stop their activities and leave the country” or else it would plant a million bombs in churches across the country.

“There is fear in the Christian community,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman for the Assumption Church. “Now we have police guarding our church, and its gates are closed. People coming in are asked to open their bags for security checks. It’s unheard of in the house of God.”

Suspect Arrested

An unexpected development occurred today as last rites were performed at the church on Joseph, the mother of the 15-year-old girl who also died in the explosion.

“At around 3 a.m. Tuesday, we arrested the woman who planted the bomb in the church,” Deputy Inspector-General of Police Kuber Rana told Compass.

Rana, who was part of a three-member police team formed to investigate the attack, identified the woman as a 27-year-old Nepalese, Sita Shrestha nee Thapa. Thapa allegedly confessed to police that she was a member of an obscure group, Hindu Rashtra Bachao Samiti (The Society to Save the Hindu Nation), and had planted the bomb inspired by the NDA.

The NDA made a small splash in 2007, a year after Nepal’s last king, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, who had tried to seize absolute power with the help of the army, was forced to step down after nationwide protests. The cornered king had to reinstate a parliament that had been dissolved several years ago, and the resurrected house promptly decided to end his pretensions as the incarnation of a Hindu god by declaring Nepal to be a secular country.

Soon after that, a man walked into the office of a Nepalese weekly in Kathmandu and claimed to have formed the NDA, a group of former army soldiers, policemen and victims of the Maoists. Its aim was to build up an underground army that would wage a Hindu “jihad.” The man, who called himself Parivartan – meaning change – also claimed the NDA was nurturing suicide bombers.

According to police, Parivartan is the name assumed by a 38-year-old man from Morang district in eastern Nepal – Ram Prasad Mainali. The NDA began to acquire a reputation after it set off a bomb in 2007 at the Kathmandu office of the Maoists, who had laid down arms and returned to mainstream politics. In 2008, it stepped up its pro-Hindu war, bombing two mosques in southern Nepal and killing two Muslims at prayer.

It also targeted a church in the east, a newspaper office and the interim Parliament on the day the latter officially announced Nepal a secular republic.

Though police began a half-hearted hunt for Mainali, the NDA struck again last July, killing a 62-year-old Catholic priest, the Rev. John Prakash, who was also the principal of the Don Bosco School run in Sirsiya town in southern Nepal by the Salesian fathers.

“Extortion and intimidation are the two prime motives of the NDA,” said a Catholic church official who requested anonymity for security reasons. “Father Prakash had withdrawn a large sum of money to pay salaries as well as for some ongoing construction. Someone in the bank must have informed the NDA. It has good contacts, it knows who we are and our phone numbers.”

Small churches in southern and eastern Nepal, which are often congregations of 40-50 people who worship in rented rooms, have been terrified by threats and demands for money, said representatives of the Christian community. Some congregations have reportedly paid extortion sums to avert attacks from the NDA.

“Though the NDA does not seem to have a well chalked-out strategy, its activities indicate it receives support from militant Hindu outfits in India,” said Bishop Sharma of the Protestant Believers’ Church. “It has been mostly active in the south and east, in areas close to the Indian border. Bellicose Hindu groups from north India are likely to support their quest for a Hindu Nepal.”

While Thapa has been charged with murder, Rana said police are also hunting for NDA chief Mainali. And the arrest of Thapa has not lightened the gloom of the Christian community nor lessened its fears.

“There have been instances galore of police arresting innocent people and forcing them to confess,” said Bishop Sharma. “Look at the case of Manja Tamang.”

Tamang, a Believers’ Church pastor, was released this week after serving nine years in prison for murder that his co-religionists say he did not commit. Tamang staunchly protests his innocence with his church standing solidly behind him, saying he was framed.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIAN FACES ‘BLASPHEMY’ ABETTING CHARGE, DANGERS


Human rights activist could face violence long after trial finishes.

CHICAGO, March 13 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani investigator has ruled out a charge against a Christian for “blaspheming Islam” but retained another for abetting blasphemy, and advocates worry the stigma of the charges could make him a target for local Islamists.

Hector Aleem, 51, remains in Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. His lawyer said he believes law enforcement officers and community members framed Aleem for his social activism on behalf of Christians so that the stigma of the charges would subject him to the danger of violence.

The case began last November when a Muslim scholar received a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Authorities charged Aleem with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code.

Investigating Officer Zafer Ikbal on March 4 ruled out the possibility of a blasphemy charge since evidence showed the message came from an unlisted phone number, not Aleem’s. This move followed a Feb. 2 decision by Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut to exonerate Aleem of blasphemy by moving the case from an anti-terrorism court to a magistrate court; with the change of court, the investigating officer had considered anew the possibility of a blasphemy charge.

Phone records in the investigation showed the original culprit had a one-hour conversation with someone at Aleem’s phone number. Aleem claimed that his assistant, Bashar Kokar, was the one who talked with the culprit. As a result, both men were incarcerated and charged with abetment.

In the meantime, Aleem’s attorney, Malik Tafik, has filed an application for bail. He said he hopes it will be approved at a session court hearing next week.

The crime of abetting does not carry a severe penalty in Pakistani criminal law. But in this case, Tafik said, its connection to blasphemy against Islam could put Aleem in danger of attacks by Muslim extremists even if he is found innocent.

“He will continue to be in danger from religious extremists after the case finishes,” Tafik said. “Even though he is only charged with abetment, he is still in danger.”

A Pakistani official concurred that those in the community opposed to Aleem’s human rights activism may have used the charges as a pretext to jail him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, said Aleem may have been framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

Last November, Aleem became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency, which wanted to demolish their church building.

Blasphemy charges carry a particularly dangerous stigma in certain parts of Pakistan. Within Rawalpindi, there is a dedicated following of the Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade. When Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a hearing on Jan. 30, a crowd of 150 protestors gathered, shouting that his life would not be spared and that the police should hand him over to them.

But Malik said the case has nothing to do with sectarian tensions and resulted only from members of the municipality targeting Aleem because they opposed his campaign to save a church slated for destruction.

“Generally the relations between Muslims and Christians are good,” Malik said. “This was a false case against Aleem.”

Aleem’s bail application is pending. But due to current court strikes in Pakistan, the application may take a few weeks, said Katherine Sapna, a field officer for the advocacy group Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). Lawyers are rallying against the government in a bid to reinstate former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry, who was deposed by former President Pervez Musharraf.

 

More ‘Blasphemy’ Cases

Christian legislators have called on the Pakistani Parliament to strike down its blasphemy laws, as they are frequently used against the Muslim-majority country’s Christian minority.

Punishment for blasphemy in Pakistan can potentially mean death, and the charges are easy to file. Private citizens can register a blasphemy case, whereas normal procedure calls for police officers to file charges.

According to a CLAAS report, police opened blasphemy charges against two Christians on March 1 in the village of Malukay, 55 miles southeast of Lahore. Walayat Masih and his daughter Sarina attended a fair in a graveyard to honor a deceased religious figure, Muharri Shah, revered by both local Christians and Muslims.

In the course of the celebrations, local Muslims thought that the Christians had improperly covered an Islamic inscription on the tomb. Soon a mob gathered and began attacking those Christians who weren’t able to flee. A crowd cornered Masih and his daughter and severely beat them until police arrived and took the victims to the police station, where they were charged with blasphemy.

CLAAS is investigating the case. The organization will represent the two in court if charges are not dropped.  

Report from Compass Direct News