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

Pastor Bike encourages house church despite persecution


ChinaAid (www.chinaaid.org) is reporting that this morning (Monday, September 20, 2010), during the trial of house church Christians Liu Yunhua and Gao Jianli, Pastor “Bike” (Zhang Mingxuan) and his wife, who had come to see the trial, were detained by the Public Security Bureau (PSB), reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

“The passionate evangelist, known for riding his bike across the country on missions of encouragement, has been detained, arrested, and interrogated countless times over the past 10 years in his efforts to strengthen house church Christians. He is the Chairman of the China House Church Alliance,” said the ChinaAid story.

“The court session for the trial of second instance in the Christian persecution case of Liu Yunhua and Gao Jianli of Xuchang City, Henan province began at 9 a.m. today Monday local time, at the Intermediate People’s Court of Xuchang City. Pastor Bike and his wife arrived at the court today to watch with the audience, but were detained by the local PSB of Xuchang City. At 11:30am, they were released.”

Other Christians from Yucheng, Hennan, who had come to see the trial, were also detained by the Yucheng Public Security Bureau on their way home. They are Liu Fulan, Hua Cuiying, Li Yuxia, Ma Keai, Liu Sen (the son of the defendant Liu Yunhua). There is as of yet no record of their release.

ChinaAid urges Xuchang local government to respect Pastor Zhang Mingxuan (“Bike”) and his wife’s rights as citizens, and we call on the Yucheng local government to release the house church members who are still detained.

“We ask Christians worldwide to join us in prayer for their protection and encouragement,” a spokesperson said.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

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

Tehran begins crackdown in advance of bloody anniversary


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from the Christian Telegraph

‘Pinpricks’ of Truth Making Way into North Korea


Citizens increasingly enlightened about world’s worst violator of religious freedom.

DUBLIN, April 26 (CDN) — As refugees from North Korea and activists from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) gather in Seoul, South Korea this week to highlight human rights violations in the hermit kingdom, there are signs that North Korean citizens are accessing more truth than was previously thought.

A recent survey by the Peterson Institute found that a startling 60 percent of North Koreans now have access to information outside of government propaganda.

“North Koreans are increasingly finding out that their misery is a direct result of the Kim Jong-Il regime, not South Korea and America as we were brainwashed from birth to believe,” Kim Seung Min of Free North Korea Radio said in a press statement. The radio station is a partner in the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), which is holding its annual North Korea Freedom Week (NKFW) in Seoul rather than Washington, D.C. for the first time in the seven-year history of the event.

“We set out to double the radio listenership of 8 or 9 percent, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have access to information,” said NKFC Co-Chair Suzanne Scholte. She described the flow of information as “pinpricks in a dark veil over North Korea. Now those pinpricks are becoming huge holes.”

The radio station now air-drops radios into North Korea and broadcasts into the country for five hours a day, adding to information gleaned by refugees and merchants who cross the border regularly to buy Chinese goods.

In recent years the government has been forced to allow a limited market economy, but trade has brought with it illegal technology such as VCR machines, televisions, radios and cell phones that can detect signals from across the border. Previously all televisions and radios available in North Korea could only receive official frequencies. 

“The government hasn’t been able to stamp out the markets, so they begrudgingly allow them to continue,” Scholte confirmed. “This means North Koreans aren’t relying solely on the regime anymore.”

Holding the annual event in Seoul this year sends a significant message, Scholte told Compass.

“This is a spiritual conflict as well as a physical one – some people didn’t want us to call it freedom week,” she said. “But we’re making a statement … God gives us freedom by the very nature of being human and North Koreans are entitled to that too.”

All people say they would never allow the World War II holocaust to be repeated, Scholte said, “but this is a holocaust, a genocide. I firmly believe we will be judged if we fail to intervene.”

The coalition hopes this week’s event will empower the 17,000 strong North Korean defectors in South Korea, awaken the consciousness of the world about human rights conditions in North Korea, and inform all who are suffering in North Korea that others will “work together until the day their freedom, human rights and dignity are realized,” Scholte said in the press statement.

As part of the week’s activities, the coalition will send leaflets into North Korea via balloon stating in part, “In the same year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, Kim Il-Sung was ensuring that you wouldn’t have any of those rights.”

Religious freedom in particular is almost non-existent. The only accepted belief is Juche – an ideology that strictly enforces worship of the country’s leaders.

“The regime is a perversion of Christianity,” Scholte told Compass. Juche has a holy trinity just as Christianity does, with Father Kim Il-Sung, son Kim Jong-Il, and the spirit of Juche said to give strength to the people.

“Kim Il-Sung is God; a real God can’t replace him,” a former North Korean security agent confirmed in David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

While four churches exist in the capital, Pyongyang, experts believe these are largely showpieces for foreign visitors.

The government has allowed token visits from high-profile foreign Christians such as Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who preached at Bongsu Protestant church in Pyongyang in August 2008; and two U.S. Christian bands, Casting Crowns and Annie Moses, attended and won awards at the Spring Friendship Arts Festival in April 2009.

Worship outside limited official venues is simply not tolerated, giving North Korea first place on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2010 World Watch List for persecution of Christians.

Ordinary citizens caught with a Bible or in a clandestine prayer meeting are immediately labeled members of the hostile class and either executed or placed in prison labor camps, along with three generations of their immediate family. Every North Korean belongs to either the “hostile,” “wavering” or “core” class, affecting privileges from food and housing to education and physical freedom, according to Hawke’s report.

There are no churches outside the capital, but the regime in 2001 estimated there were 12,000 Protestants and 800 Catholics in North Korea. In July 2002 the government also reported the existence of 500 vaguely-defined “family worship centers” catering to a population of approximately 22.7 million, according to a September 2009 International Religious Freedom report issued by the U.S. State Department.

By contrast, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in July 2009 put the estimate at 30,000 Christians, some NGOs and academics estimate there may be up to several hundred thousand underground Christians.

Uncertain Future

As North Korea celebrated the birthday of Kim Jong-Il on Feb. 16, rumors spread that the elderly leader, currently battling heart problems, had chosen third son Kim Jong-Eun as his successor.

Documents extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-Eun began circulating as early as November, according to the Daily NK online news agency. An official “education” campaign for elite officials began in January and was extended to lesser officials in March. One document obtained by the agency described the “Youth Captain” as being “the embodiment of Kim Il-Sung’s appearance and ideology.”

“Kim picked this son because he’s ruthless and evil,” Scholte said, “but I don’t think they’re quite ready to hand over to him yet. There is an uncertainty, a vulnerability.”

Scholte believes this is the ideal time to “reach out, get information in there and push every possible way.”

“There are many double-thinkers among the elite,” she explained. “They know the regime is wrong, but they have the Mercedes, the education for their kids and so on, so they have no incentive to leave.”

The coalition is trying to persuade South Korea to establish a criminal tribunal, she said.

“North Koreans are actually citizens of South Korea by law,” she said. “We have to let these guys know there’s going to be a reckoning, to create a good reason for them not to cooperate [with authorities].”

Those in other countries have an obligation too, Scholte concluded. “When people walk out of the camps, it will haunt us. They’ll want to know, ‘What were you doing?’ We will be held accountable.”

Article 26 of North Korea’s constitution declares that the people have freedom of religion. The organizers of this year’s freedom week fervently hope that this declaration will soon become a reality.

SIDEBAR

The Cross at the Border: China’s Complicity in Refugees’ Suffering

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) estimate anywhere from 30,000 to 250,000 refugees from North Korea are living in China, either in border areas or deeper inland. Few are Christians when they emerge from North Korea, but the whispered advice among refugees is to “head for a cross,” signaling a Chinese church that may assist them, according to a February 2009 National Geographic report.

Since China will not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to border areas, Chinese Christians work with Christian NGOs to provide an “underground railroad” moving refugees via several routes to safety, most often in South Korea.

Chun Ki-Won, director of Christian NGO Durihana, admits that some of the refugees adopt Christianity to win favor with their rescuers, but others retain and strengthen their faith on arrival in South Korea.

China insists that the refugees are economic migrants and pays police a bounty to arrest and return them to North Korea. On arrival, North Korean officials pointedly question the refugees about contact with Chinese Christians or Christian NGOs. If any contact is admitted, execution or imprisonment is likely, according to David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

As one refugee told Hawke, “Having faith in God is an act of espionage.”

Still others choose to return to North Korea with Bibles and other Christian resources at great risk to themselves. For example, officials in June 2009 publicly executed Ri Hyon-Ok, caught distributing Bibles in Ryongchon, a city near the Chinese border, South Korean activists reported.

China remains impervious to the refugees’ plight.

“China fears being flooded by refugees if they show compassion,” said Suzanne Scholte, co-chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition. “But refugee flows aren’t going to collapse the [North Korean] regime. If that was going to happen, it would have happened already during the famine, so their argument doesn’t hold water.”

She added that North Koreans don’t want to leave. “They leave because of Kim Jong-Il,” she said. “Those [North Korean refugees] in South Korea want to go back and take freedom with them.”

Two U.S. Christians entered North Korea in recent months with the same goal in mind. Robert Park, an evangelical Christian missionary, crossed the border on Dec. 25 with a letter calling for Kim Jong-Il to resign.

Officials immediately arrested Park, according to the regime’s Korean Central News Agency. He was later sentenced to eight years of hard labor but released in late February after making what many experts believe was a forced confession.

Fellow activist Aijalon Mahli Gomes entered North Korea on Jan. 25, the same news agency reported. Officials sentenced Gomes to nine years of hard labor and fined him 70 million new Won (US$518,520). At press time Gomes remained in detention.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Threat of Return to Hindu State in Nepal Looms


With deadline for new constitution approaching, Christians fear end of secular government.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 30 (CDN) — Four years after Nepal became officially secular, fear is growing that the country could revert to the Hindu state it was till 2006, when proclaiming Christ was a punishable offense and many churches functioned clandestinely to avoid being shut down.

Concerns were heightened after Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra Shah, once regarded as a Hindu god, broke the silence he has observed since Nepal abolished monarchy in 2008. During his visit to a Hindu festival this month, the former king said that monarchy was not dead and could make a comeback if people so desired.

Soon after that, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister and respected leader of the largest ruling party, said that instead of getting a new constitution, Nepal should revive an earlier one. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom with a constitutional monarch.

There is now growing doubt that the ruling parties will not be able to fashion the new constitution they promised by May.

“We feel betrayed,” said Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal. “The Constituent Assembly we elected to give us a new constitution that would strengthen democracy and secularism has frittered away the time and opportunity given to it.”

The clamor for a Hindu state has been growing as the May 28 deadline for the new constitution draws near. When a Hindu preacher, Kalidas Dahal, held a nine-day prayer ritual in Kathmandu this month seeking reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, thousands of people flocked to him. The throng included three former prime ministers and top leaders of the ruling parties.

“The large turnout signals that Hinduism is enshrined in the hearts of the people and can’t be abolished by the government,” said Hridayesh Tripathi, a former minister and Constituent Assembly member whose Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party is the fifth-largest in the ruling alliance. “It was a mistake to abolish Hinduism in a hurry.”

Another blow for a Hindu state was struck by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), the only party that fought the 2008 election in support of monarchy and a Hindu state. It is now calling for a referendum. As a pressure tactic, it paralyzed the capital and its two neighboring cities in February by calling a general strike.

“The election gave the Constituent Assembly the mandate of writing a new constitution, not deciding issues of national importance,” said Kamal Thapa, the RPP-N chief who also was home minister during the brief government headed by Gyanendra. “Most people in Nepal want a Hindu state and a constitutional king. If their demand is not heeded, they will feel excluded and refuse to follow the new constitution. We are asking the government to hold a referendum on the two issues before May 28.”

With only two months left, it is clear the demand can’t be met if the constitution is to come into effect within the stipulated time. Now the specter of anarchy and violence hangs over Nepal.

Nepal’s Maoists, who fought a 10-year war to make Nepal a secular republic and who remain the former king’s most bitter enemy, say attempts have begun to whip up riots in the name of a Hindu state. The former guerrillas also allege that the campaign for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion is backed by ministers, politicians from the ruling parties and militant religious groups from India.

Effectively Hindu

Even if a new, secular constitution is approved by the deadline, there is still no guarantee that the rights of religious minorities would be protected.

Nilambar Acharya, who heads the committee that is drafting the new constitution, said it would be merely a broad guideline for the government; compatible laws would have to be drafted to protect rights.

“The previous constitution abolished ‘untouchability’ [a practice among Hindus of treating those at the bottom of the social ladder as outcasts],” Acharya told Compass. “But untouchability still exists in Nepal. To achieve all that the constitution promises, the mindset of society has to be changed first. For that, you need political will.”

Though Nepal became secular in 2006, Hinduism still gets preferential treatment. The state allocates funds for institutions like the Kumari, the tradition of choosing prepubescent girls as protective deities of the state and worshipping them as “living goddesses.” The state also gave money to organizers of a controversial, five-yearly religious festival, the Gadhimai Fair, where tens of thousands of birds are slaughtered as offerings to Hindu gods despite international condemnation.

There is no support, predictably, for Christian festivals. When the Constituent Assembly was formed – partly though election and partly by nomination – no Christian name was proposed even though the prime minister was authorized to nominate members from unrepresented communities.

Christian leaders want such religious bias abolished. Rokaya of the National Council of Churches of Nepal said Christians have recommended full freedom of religion in the new constitution: allowing one to follow the religion of one’s choice, to change one’s religion if desired or have the right not to be associated with any religion.

The churches have also asked the state not to interfere in religious matters.

“We are asking the government not to fund any religious activity, not to be part of any religious appointments and not to allow public land for any religious event,” Rokaya said.

The recommendations, however, may not be heeded. During their brief stint in power, the Maoists tried to stop state assistance for the Kumari. It led to violence and a general strike in the capital, forcing the party to withdraw the decision.

In its 2009 report on religious freedom in Nepal, the U.S. Department of State notes that while the interim constitution officially declared the country secular, “the president, in his capacity as head of state, attended major Hindu religious ceremonies over which the king previously presided.”

It also notes that there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

“Those who converted to a different religious group occasionally faced violence and were ostracized socially,” it states. “Those who chose to convert to other religious groups, in particular Hindu citizens who converted to Islam or Christianity, were sometimes ostracized. They occasionally faced isolated incidents of hostility or discrimination from Hindu extremist groups. Some reportedly were forced to leave their villages.”

Dr. Ramesh Khatri, executive director of Association for Theological Education in Nepal, has experienced such persecution first-hand. When he became a Christian in 1972, his father disowned him. Then in 1984 he was arrested for holding a Bible camp. Though the case against him was dropped in 1990 after a pro-democracy movement, Khatri said hatred of Christians still persists.

“Christians can never sleep peacefully at night,” he said wryly. “The new constitution will make Nepal another India, where Christians are persecuted in Orissa, Gujarat and Karnataka.” The Oxford University-educated Khatri, who writes a column in a Nepali daily, said violent responses to his articles show how Nepal still regards its Christians.

“I am attacked as a ‘Rice Christian,’” he said. “It is a derogatory term implying I converted for material benefits. The antagonistic feeling society has towards Christians will not subside with the new constitution, and we can’t expect an easy life. The Bible says that, and the Bible is true.”

Christians continue to face persecution and harassment. In March, missions resource organization Timeless Impact International (TII) noted that a church in northern Nepal, near the foothills of Mt. Everest, was attacked by a local mob.

The newly established church in Dolakha district was attacked during a fellowship meeting in January. An ethnic mob headed by religious leaders destroyed the church meeting place, assaulted participants and warned them not to speak about Christianity in the village, TII said.

The situation, even now, remained unchanged.

“None of the church members have been able to return to their homes,” TII stated. “They feel completely unsafe and at risk.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

How an Australian-born pastor survived a Molotov cocktail


Wayne Zschech, the Australian-born pastor of Calvary Chapel Kaharlyk, just south of Kiev in Ukraine with a population 15,000, says he will never forget the events that took place in the early hours of Wednesday, October 14th, when attackers smashed a window at the church building, where he and his family live, and threw a Molotov cocktail (petrol bomb) into the building, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

In an interview he gave me during my recent visit to Kiev, he re-lived the horrifying turn of events that could have caused the deaths of himself and his family as they slept.

“It all started when my wife Olya woke up in the morning to feed the newborn baby and she said she could smell smoke,” said Wayne. “We actually live in the church building and that night, there were six of us (including his mother-in-law) who were sleeping. We had actually sent the kids to school at eight o’clock in the morning and my wife said again that she could ‘really smell smoke.’ So we looked out the back window and there was smoke billowing out of the back of the church.

“Suddenly, it was all hands on deck. I called the fire brigade and then started finding where the fire was coming from. We originally thought that it was an electrical short because it’s an old building. I began opening up all the doors – because I didn’t want the fire brigade knocking them down – and looking in the basement trying to find where the fire was coming from.

“I kept going down into the basement and when I came up for air on the third or fourth occasion, I just happened to walk around the side of the building and suddenly the whole situation became clear. Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail through the side of the building into our children’s ministry room and had also left spray painted markings on the side of the building saying, ‘Get out of here, you sectarians.’ So suddenly it put a big a whole new spin on the situation.”

I asked Wayne if he had ever experienced trouble before and he replied, “Not directly. We’ve had a couple of youths smashing windows and so we had to put security screens on our apartment, but nothing like this. There was no warning.”

Sitting next to Pastor Zschech was his assistant pastor, American-born Micah Claycamp, who is married with four children, who then described what he saw when he arrived at the church that morning.

“I had come to the church to do a language lesson and, as I walked in, I saw a big hose running from the back of the church into the room that had been firebombed and I could smell smoke,” he said. “They had just finished cleaning everything up and I went around to the side of the building and saw what had been spray painted and started talking to Wayne who had got the situation figured out and he told me what exactly had happened.

“This was the first big thing we’ve seen in our town. It is pretty quiet for the most part. I don’t feel threatened living there but this obviously is a situation that is a lot different and when you walk into something like this it makes you appreciate the things that you see God do, the unseen things. It makes you realize how much God protects our lives in ways you don’t see every day. So it just makes you more appreciative of His protection.”

I then asked Wayne how an Australian from Brisbane whose family hailed from the Prussian part of Germany finished up in a small town in Ukraine.

“Well, to be perfectly honest, I think God played a trick on me,” he smiled. “I graduated from school and wanted to get into the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and when I applied for the Australian Defence Force Academy I got the chickenpox and so they didn’t let me in that year, even though my academic achievements were fine.

“So I quickly did a deal with God and said, ‘I’ll give you a year of my life’ and the next thing I knew three months later I was in Ukraine and started a Bible-based English schooling programs in communist government schools where kids were learning about Jesus. I was just seventeen years old at the time and began travelling all over the country and I’ve been here ever since. That is some sixteen and a half years now.”

Had he seen big changes in the country?

“Yes, many changes,” he said. “We’ve had currency changes and also seen mindset changes. We see economic things going on and we’ve learned a lot of things. But along the way, I found a beautiful Ukrainian girl and we have a wonderful marriage and we have three Ukrainian kids.”

Wayne then spoke about how he got involved in this Calvary Chapel.

“Well, I got tricked also into becoming the pastor of this church in what was then a village,” he said. “The founding pastor who moved with me from Kiev to Kaharlyk went back home to Australia to do his deputation work and a couple months later, he wrote me an email saying that he was ‘not returning to be the pastor of the church.’ He added, ‘So congratulations. You’re the pastor.’ So not only did I become a missionary by hook or by crook but also became a pastor and I’m thrilled.

“I never wanted to be those things but God has turned things around totally and I’m absolutely content and happy and it’s a very exciting life to see what God is doing despite the fact that humans would have had other choices.”

I then asked Wayne what Kaharlyk was like when he first arrived.

“We are about 80 kilometers (nearly 50 miles) south of Kiev and it was a town that had been in economic ruin as most of the country had been after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said. “Unemployment was rife. There were no jobs, no income and there was lots of mental and cultural baggage as the country was trying to reacclimatize to the real world situation.

“Now some 12 years later, we’re basically on the outskirts of Kiev although obviously the town hasn’t moved geographically. But it’s a thriving little town. It hasn’t grown numerically that much but you can definitely see there are changes. There are people moving out of Kiev to come and live in our town. That was never in our plan and we’re also seeing bits of investment coming in and things like that show what was once basically dead is now starting to show signs of life.”

I then asked him to describe the types of people who attended his church.

“We’re a young church and we’re different from the mainstream Orthodox and older style Baptist churches,” Wayne explained. “But the truth is that we are reaching out to orphans, to the elderly and we have a beautiful mix of all those generations in between. When you see a grandmother coming with her son and her grandson to church, you see the wholesomeness that the Gospel brings when God enters a family’s life.

“Back in the early days everyone was warned about people like us saying that these are the people ‘you’ve been warned about for all those years’ and that ‘they’ve come here to hypnotize you and take all your money.’ But that was more then based out of ignorance.

“We had an Orthodox priest back then and we had some very serious chats with him and he said, ‘Look publicly, I have to hold the government line or the Orthodox line, but personally I see that you’re a brother in Christ. So that was good. I wouldn’t call that major persecution, but I can understand the fear from their side.”

He then spoke about a unique business he has begun in the town.

“We decided that we had to become producers so people can put bread on the table and we have to show how God is in everything,” said Wayne. “So we have started a little mushroom-growing enterprise and now we’re making biodiesel. We actually collect oil from a number of restaurants, including McDonald’s Ukraine, and we make biodiesel and sell it and save money for the church and make money for the church and employ people and reinvest into the local town.”

Micah then said that he runs his car on biodiesel which he says smells like “fried chicken.”

“I can run it and I haven’t had any problems at all,” he said. “It’s also cheaper and I’ve put advertisements on the van to let people know the phone numbers so that people know what’s going on.”

It was Micah that picked me up at the Kiev (Borispol) Airport and drove me to my hotel and I have to confess that I didn’t catch a whiff of fried chicken from the exhaust of the van, though I did have a bad cold at the time.

I concluded by returning to the topic of the firebombing and asked Wayne if he had further thoughts about it.

“As soon as we discovered that it was intentional, you can just imagine the situation in your mind with totally charged different emotions,” he said. “We were targeted from the side of the building so that everyone in the town walking past it could see the damage and the spray painting.

“It was basically a political statement in that respect. The fact that the family was asleep in the building when it happened my mother in-law was staying at the time and she said that she heard some banging around at five o’clock in the morning and we looked at the fire damage and we see that it was a real a miracle. There was a fire but the damage was minimal. It should have been so much worse. What turned out to be a couple thousand dollars worth of damage when we could have lost the whole room.

“If they, for some, reason had chosen another window to throw it in, just the next window, the floor boards are totally bear there we don’t have thick linoleum on them, so the fire would have spread immediately. There’s a big air gap right under those boards and it runs right to our family’s bedrooms.”

I concluded by asking Wayne what his prayer needs were at this time.

“That Christ would be glorified to the maximum through this and the next circumstances and that He would save people and that the Christian body locally and throughout the world would pray harder to understanding the privileges that we have in our situations and that God can change them any time that He wants.”

Micah then added his prayer request: “That our church would grow together in this as they would see that God allows these things to happen to strengthen the body, to cause our eyes to be back upon Him and that for His glory to be done and bring more people to Christ.”

By the way if the name Zschech rings a bell with you, he is related to Darlene Zschech, who is perhaps most famous for the chorus "Shout to the Lord," a song that is sung by an estimated 25 to 30 million churchgoers every week, who has married in the Zschech family. “I was a Zschech first,” laughed Wayne.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Islamic extremists kill Somali church leader


A human rights group has learned that members of al-Shabab (a Somali Islamic extremist group) have killed yet another leader of an underground church in the Somalia capital of Mogadishu, reports Jeremy Reynalds, correspondent for ASSIST News Service.

Washington-based International Christian Concern (ICC), reported that on Oct. 10, Pastor Ali Hussein Weheliye was returning home from a worship service when two masked members of al-Shabab ambushed and shot him. He was later taken to Darful Shifa Hospital where he died of bullet wounds on Oct. 20.

According to ICC, Ali converted from Islam to Christianity in 1999 while working in Somalia’s capital as a linguist. In 2002, he started pastoring an underground house church. He is survived by his wife and a daughter who are now in hiding fearing for their lives.

ICC reported that Al-Shabab has previously declared Somalia as an Islamic state, vowing to eradicate Christians. Just this year, the group has killed a dozen Somali Christians. Several Christians have also left the country due to the intense persecution. Despite the killings by al-Shabab, the Somali church is growing rapidly.

ICC’s Regional Manager for Africa and South Asia, Jonathan Racho, said in a news release, "The underground church in Somalia is enduring untold suffering. Al-Shabab and other Islamic extremist groups are hunting down and killing Christians. By killing Christians, the Islamic extremists have repeatedly demonstrated utter disregard to human life and freedom of religion."

ICC asked that readers pray the Lord would comfort and strengthen Ali’s wife and daughter. In addition, ICC requested prayer for courage and wisdom for the underground churches in Somalia.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Court Impedes Effort to Rescue Kidnapped Girl in Bangladesh


Muslim men abduct Christian eighth-grader, force her to convert and marry.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, November 3 (CDN) — A bail order in Bangladesh has impeded police from rescuing a young Christian girl who was abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry one of her kidnappers, according to police.

Four Muslim men abducted eighth-grade student Silvia Merry Sarker on July 30 as she made her way home from school in west Sujankathi village, under Agoiljhara police jurisdiction, in Barisal district in southern Bangladesh, according to her father, Julian Sarker.

Sarker filed a case under the Women and Children Repression Act against Al-Amin Faria, 24, Shamim Faria, 22, Sahadat Faria, 20, and Sattar Faria, 50.

“My daughter was abducted by Faria with the help of his cousins and other relatives,” said Sarker.

Sarker filed a First Information Report (FIR) charging that the men abducted his daughter initially to “indulge Al-Amin Faria’s evil desire.” Later she was forced to convert to Islam and marry Al-Amin Faria, which Sarker said was part of an attempt to take over his land and property.

Local police inspector Ashok Kumar Nandi told Compass that police were continuing efforts to arrest the kidnappers but had yet to find them, as the unusually early bail order had blocked their efforts.

“There are four names as prime suspects in the case,” Nandi said. “We arrested three of them, but the court released them on bail. If the court had given them to us on remand, we might have found the girl, or at least we would get much information to rescue the girl.”

Generally suspects in cases under the Women and Children Repression Act are not granted bail so early for the sake of investigations, Nandi said.

“We do not know why they were released on bail,” he said. “Those released persons are moving freely in the village. We cannot arrest them again without an order.”

Attorney Rabindra Ghosh, president of Bangladesh Minority Watch and an activist for Dutch human rights organization Global Human Rights Defense, told Compass that the granting of bail to the suspects also poses threats to the victim’s family.

“They are threatening the victim’s family to withdraw the case,” said Ghosh. “Release of the abductors on bail so early is a travesty – the abductors got impunity due to the early bail order. For the sake of the girl’s rescue, the court could have sent the arrestees to police on remand to find more information about their hideout.”

Gnosh concurred that an accused person under the Women and Children Repression Act case does not get bail so early without first getting necessary information from them.

False Document

A few days after the kidnapping, Sarker said, the abductors provided Nimchandra Bepari, a Hindu neighbor, an affidavit claiming that Sarker’s daughter was 19 years old. Bepari gave the affidavit to the local police inspector. The kidnappers also contacted sub-district chairman Mortuza Khan.

“My daughter is 13 years old, but the abductors made an affidavit of her age showing 19 years old,” Sarker said.

The headmaster of Agoiljhara Shrimoti Matrimangal Girls High School, where the girl is a student, issued a certificate denoting that Silvia Merry Sarker is even younger than 13 – born on Dec. 24, 1997, which would mean she is not yet 12 years old.

The fabricated affidavit provided by the kidnappers states that she accepted Islam and has married, said Sarker.

“I am shocked how a minor girl is shown as an adult in the affidavit,” Ghosh said. “It is illegal, and there should be proper action against this kind of illegal activity.”

Al-Amin Faria had tried to get the girl’s two older sisters to marry him, but their early marriages saved them from falling prey to him, Sarker said.

“I married off my two elder daughters at an early age immediately after finishing their schooling,” said Sarker.

Before they married, Sarker said he felt helpless to keep Faria and his family from accosting and harassing his other daughters.

“I could not take any legal action against them since we are the only Christian family here,” he said. “I tolerated everything. I did not inform it to police or they would get infuriated.”

When Faria “targeted” his second daughter for marriage, Sarker informed the headmaster of the school and its managing committee, and they warned the Muslim not to disturb the family, Sarker said. Nevertheless, he said, he felt he couldn’t send his older daughters to school because he feared Faria would harm them.

“The relation of us with those Muslim neighbors is ‘predator-and-prey,’” he said. “I saved my other family members from his lechery, but I could not save my youngest daughter.”

Sarker said he felt alone and helpless as a Christian minority but that he doesn’t understand how the entire justice system also can be so helpless.

“Why and how can the court, law enforcement agencies, police, administration, society and the country be helpless against him? Why can’t they rescue my daughter?” he said.

Dilip Gabriel Bepari, an activist for Bangladesh Minority Watch, told Compass that the group had informed national and international officials in seeking help to find the girl.

“We informed it to various ministers, political leaders and police high officials,” Bepari said. “We also informed it to the Vatican ambassador in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the girl is still missing.”

Archbishop Paulinus Costa of Bangladesh said the Catholic Church’s impassioned plea to the government is to rescue her as soon as possible and bring the kidnappers to justice.

“It is unfortunate that the girl is not rescued yet in three months,” Costa said. “There must be negligence and indifference to the Christians from the government, otherwise the girl would be rescued.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) this year removed Bangladesh from its “Watch List” of countries requiring close monitoring of religious freedom violations, but it urged the new Awami League administration to strengthen protections for all Bangladeshis.

USCIRF also indicates that it hopes the government of Bangladesh will investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violent acts against members of minority religious communities.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Merkel: EU legislation does not curb religious freedom


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reassured evangelical Christians that European anti-discrimination legislation will not curb their freedom of worship and religious expression, reports Wolfgang Polzer, special to ASSIST News Service.

In an interview with three German evangelical media organizations she emphasized that EU anti-discrimination laws were only meant to prevent any disadvantages for specific groups. For example, older people should have the same opportunities as younger persons; women should have equal rights as well as people with special needs.

Anti-discrimination legislation is meant to strengthen equality, said Merkel. She was interviewed in Berlin by leading journalists of Evangeliums-Rundfunk (Gospel Radio), the media association KEP (Conference of Evangelical Publicists) and the news agency “idea”, all stationed in Wetzlar.

Merkel, raised in a vicar’s family in East Germany, called on Christians to refrain from despondency and put their trust in God. The power of their faith would enable them to weather difficult times and face the future with confidence.

The 55-year-old politician is also leader of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany and faces general elections on September 27. As she explained, the “C” in the name of her party serves as a foundation for operative politics.

“We regard every individual as God’s creation equipped with freedom and responsibility,” said Merkel. Politics was meant to create conditions in which the individual can develop his or her talents. The “C” was also a reminder of the need to preserve the integrity of creation.

Merkel emphasized the German obligation to protect the integrity of the state of Israel. The German government is also striving for progress in the peace effort. Merkel’s government supports a two-state-solution. This requires compromises on both sides, she said.

As the chancellor explained, a task force in the Foreign Office is working hard to bring light into the fate of a German Christian family abducted in Yemen in mid-June. Every effort was made to find out where the parents and their three children are and how they can be set free, said Merkel. She expressed her respect for volunteers helping to alleviate human suffering abroad.

Report from the Christian Telegraph