Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News

Anglican Communion of U.K. first to accept Pope’s offer


Members of The Traditional Anglican Church in Great Britain have announced that they will enter into communion with the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Constitution for Anglicans, reports Catholic News Agency.

According to the group’s website, members met on October 29 for their October 2009 Assembly. They scrapped their initial itinerary for the meeting following the Vatican’s Oct. 20 announcement that an Apostolic Constitution was being prepared in response to requests from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful wanting to enter into full communion with the Church. Instead, the assembly focused on what the news from the Vatican meant for the small group of Anglicans who are part of the Traditional Anglican Communion.

Anglican Bishop David Moyer released a statement describing the October Assembly as “grace-filled,” noting that everyone in attendance became “aware of the movement of the Holy Spirit.”

“The bishops, priests, ordinands, and lay representatives were brought to a place of ‘being in full accord and of one mind,’ as St. Paul prayed for the Church in Philippi,” Bishop Moyer wrote.

During the assembly, Bishop Moyer as well as Anglican Bishops John Hepworth and Robert Mercer fielded questions about the Vatican proposal before the Assembly unanimously passed resolutions written to carefully “and clearly reflect TTAC’s corporate desire and intention.”

The resolutions state that the Traditional Anglican Communion in Great Britain “offers its joyful thanks to Pope Benedict XVI for his forthcoming Apostolic Constitution allowing the corporate reunion of Anglicans with the Holy See, and requests the Primate and College of Bishops of the Traditional Anglican Communion to take the steps necessary to implement this Constitution.”

Bishop Moyer added, “All present realised that the requirement for the days ahead is patience, charity, and openness to the Holy Spirit.”

Though the Apostolic Constitution is not yet available, Cardinal William Joseph Levada, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith announced on Oct. 31 that it will be ready “by the end of the first week of November.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

WORLD EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE ASSEMBLY CLOSES IN THAILAND


More than 500 senior evangelical leaders gathering in Pattaya, Thailand from October 25-30, 2008, have wrapped up their General Assembly, after five days of intensive discussion to plan the way forward in world evangelization, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

On Wednesday, delegates agreed upon six major resolutions setting out an evangelical response to religious liberty, HIV and Aids, poverty, peacemaking, creation care and the global financial crisis, according to a media release obtained by ANS.

“The worldwide financial turmoil is, at its root, evidence of what happens when too many are captivated by greed and put their faith in, and entrust their security and future aspirations to, a system animated by the maximization of wealth. Many legitimately feel betrayed,” read the resolution on the global financial crisis.

“While we hope that the painful consequences of the turmoil will be mitigated, our concern is that its impact will continue to permeate into more regions and economies of the world. We recognize that this economic crisis will have the most painful impact on the poor, who are the most vulnerable.

“We reaffirm our faith in God and acknowledge that He is in control. We repent when we have placed our trust in money, institutions and persons, rather than God. Our security is not found in the things of this world.”

The resolution called on Christians to care for the poor during the crisis and live simply and generously.

“The Body of Christ, His Church, is living with HIV,” stated the resolution on HIV, a major focus area for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). “With brokenness we admit that as Evangelical Christians we have allowed stigmatization and discrimination to characterize our relationships with people living with HIV. We repent of these sinful attitudes and commit to ensuring that they are changed.”

In the preamble to the resolution on the Millennium Development Goals, evangelical leaders stated, “In coping with the financial crisis of 2008, governments and international institutions have shown how quickly and effectively they can move to mobilize massive resources in the face of serious threats to our global, common economic well being.

“Yet one child dying of preventable causes every three seconds and 2.7 billion people barely sustained on an income of less than two dollars per day has yet to evoke a similar level of urgent response.

“We believe this to be an affront to God, a shame to governments and civil society, and a massive challenge to the witness and mission of the followers of Christ.”

World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) international director Dr Geoff Tunnicliffe told delegates that they faced additional challenges to fulfilling the Great Commission from radical secularism, postmodernism, declining Christianity at the same time as growing interest in spirituality, trafficking and migration.

He insisted, however, that great challenges also brought great opportunities for evangelical engagement.

“We see this tremendous growth and this seismic shift in the church around the world and we are excited to what God is doing as he raises up women and men around the world in so many different places,” he said.

“As we think about the global reality of the world in which we live, [there are] immense challenges but also immense opportunities.”

Dr Tunnicliffe also said that the WEA would remain committed to integral mission “or holistic transformation, a proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel”.

“It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are done alongside of each other but rather in integral mission proclamation has social consequences. We call people to love and repentance in all areas of life,” he said.

He reaffirmed the WEA’s commitment to world evangelization.

“If anyone tells you that we’ve gone soft on world evangelization you can tell them that we are totally committed to world evangelization because it is only Jesus Christ that changes people’s lives,” he said.

A highlight of the week was an address from the Rev Joel Edwards, who was commissioned during the assembly as the new director of Christian anti-poverty movement Micah Challenge.

In his address, the former head of the UK Evangelical Alliance told delegates that the power to rehabilitate the word ‘evangelical’ lay in their hands.

“Whatever people think of evangelical Christians, if people are going to think differently about evangelicals the only people who can actually change their minds are evangelicals,” he said.

“We must reinvent, rehabilitate and re-inhabit what evangelical means as good news. We must present Christ credibly to our culture and we should seek to be active citizens working for long-term spiritual and social change.

“Words can change their meaning. If 420 million evangelicals in over 130 nations across the world really wanted it to happen, evangelical could mean good news.”

In another key address, the head of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, the Rev Richard Howell said that an identity anchored in Christ and a universal God was an evangelical non-negotiable in an age of pluralism.

“We have but one agenda: obedience to the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ,” said Dr Howell. “We are evangelical Christians for the sake of God.”

“Our identity has to be related back to God. Unless we do that, we will never know who we are. Our identity comes from God and God alone.”

“The Christian belief in the oneness of God implies God’s universality, and the universality implies transcendence with respect to any given culture.

“Christians can never be first of all Asians, Africans, Europeans, Americans, Australians and then Christians.”

The assembly also heard from the Chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE), Douglas Birdsall.

The WEA is collaborating with the LCWE in its major Cape Town 2010 meeting, which will bring together 4,000 evangelicals to assess the next steps in realizing the movement’s vision of ‘the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world’.

“You might ask is there a need for an international congress that deals with world evangelization,” Birdsall told the assembly. “I would say that throughout history, such a gathering is only necessary when the future of the life of the church is threatened by some type of challenge – either internal challenge or external pressure.”

The assembly also saw the launch of the WEA Leadership Institute, a brand new initiative to see the leaders of the WEA’s 128 national alliances trained to serve and proclaim Christ within some challenging contexts.

“Leading an Evangelical Alliance is not easy,” commented Dr Tunnicliffe. “That’s why we want to provide them with the relevant training and resources.”

Also commissioned during the week was the new leader of the WEA’s Religious Liberty Commission, Sri Lankan national Godfrey Yogarajah.

Dr Tunnicliffe rounded up the assembly with a call to evangelicals to keep in step with God’s work on earth.

“It is my prayer that we in our community will be women and men who live with divine purpose within our lives, that we will be good leaders envisioned by God to make a difference in the world,” he said.

“The most important thing that you can do with your [life] is to integrate it into the never ending story of God’s kingdom. God’s already at work in the world. He’s doing things. We just need to align with what He is doing.”

World Evangelical Alliance is made up of 128 national evangelical alliances located in 7 regions and 104 associate member organizations. The vision of WEA is to extend the Kingdom of God by making disciples of all nations and by Christ-centered transformation within society. WEA exists to foster Christian unity, to provide an identity, voice and platform for the 420 million evangelical Christians worldwide.

Report from the Christian Telegraph