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

Nine Chinese Christian leaders kidnapped by the police


 

Nine Fushan Church leaders, including Pastor Yang Rongli, were kidnapped on Friday, September 25, by Chinese Shanxi Province Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers while traveling to Beijing to petition the central government for justice concerning the local authorities’ brutal attack on September 13, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

ChinaAid says they were illegally seized without warrant, and have not been heard from since Friday night.

In a news release ChinaAid stated: “After the arrests, local authorities forcibly confiscated all computers, TVs and other church-owned valuables, calling them ‘illegal materials.’ Remaining church leaders and active members were placed under house arrest and are now under constant surveillance.”

China aid goes on to say that on September 26, the central government stationed state military police inside the main Fushan Church in Linfen city, where 5,000 of the 50,000-member Linfen House Church network worship together weekly, to prevent them from entering the building or holding services. Military police now guard the building and the surrounding areas around the clock.

ChinaAid has since learned that the central government was and is directly responsible for the escalating crackdown campaign against the Linfen Church.

The group says: “Ironically twisting the facts, the Beijing PSB has categorized the Linfen Church incident as a ‘violent uprising’ and resolved to use military force to subdue the alleged ‘unrest.’”

The news release states reliable government sources informed ChinaAid that a notice was sent to all relevant government agencies over the weekend, ordering them to be prepared to use military force to crackdown on the churches throughout China, in the same way the recent violent incident in Xinjiang was suppressed. They are calling the maneuver the “Xinjiang Model, ” a method that resulted in the deaths of several hundred people in Xinjiang in August.

“To have military police occupy a peaceful church is an unprecedented tragic development in 60 years of PRC history, which itself shows the reality of today’s situation regarding religious freedom in China,” ChinaAid President Bob Fu stated.

He added: “The Chinese government has no reason to be fearful of the peaceful Christian church. We call upon the international community to continue to urge the Chinese government to respect Chinese citizens’ religious freedom and to avoid shedding innocent blood.”

ChinaAid denounces the comparison of the attack on the peaceful Fushan Church to the Xinjiang incident and the excessive use of military force to suppress the Linfen House Churches.

The group says: “We call for the immediate release of the kidnapped church leaders, and the rightful restoration of all church property. We further call on the Chinese central government to cease enacting the “Xinjiang Model” of military involvement to unjustly subdue a peaceful church populace.

“We call on the international community to continue protesting the brutal treatment of Christians and the suppression of religious freedom in China.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

PAKISTAN: POLICEMAN TORTURES, PARALYZES CHRISTIAN


Disabled Christian waits in 9-year legal limbo, sent to prison for ‘kidnapping.’

ISTANBUL, December 23 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani Christian boy’s quarrel with a Muslim policeman’s son has led to his father’s imprisonment, torture, paralysis, and five-year prison sentence.

The father’s health condition has become so fragile that he was temporarily released from prison and sent to a Faisalabad hospital on Sunday (Dec. 21). Emanuel Masih, 43, is now in stable condition, his attorney told Compass.

Masih, of Faisalabad, a father of six and a former street sweeper, is trying to commute his prison sentence after police officer Omer Draz tortured him and had him imprisoned on trumped-up charges originating from a quarrel between their sons nine years ago.

The situation began in 1999 when his son Saleem, 9 at the time, was involved in a dispute with Draz’s son at the childrens’ Muslim-majority elementary school. The next day to protect Saleem, Emanuel Masih and his brother-in-law Amin Masih accompanied Saleem to a bus station, along with Saleem’s brothers, to subdue the police officer. Draz, however, attacked Saleem and Emanuel Masih’s other sons.

Following the incident Draz conspired with his housecleaner Zaniran Bibi, a Christian, to have Emanuel Masih arrested. She claimed that Emanuel Masih was responsible for the kidnapping of her son, who had gone missing some time earlier.

There was no evidence to link Emanuel Masih to the kidnapping, his attorney said.

Police arrested Emanuel Masih along with Amin Masih, who was also falsely implicated in the kidnapping, without possibility of bail. The two men were tortured for a month, according to a report from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) advocacy group.

Draz had a regular routine of torture for Emanuel Masih and his brother-in-law: He gathered them together, dragged them outside the police station and beat them with iron rods. A month of these beatings paralyzed Emanuel Masih’s arms and legs.

“They took (them) to a private house and beat them there,” said CLAAS lawyer Akbar Durrani to Compass. “They used a separate house because they are afraid of the courts.”

Emanuel Masih was then sent to judicial lock-up since he was too weak to attend a court hearing. The prison superintendent was so surprised at his condition he called on Emanuel Masih’s younger brother, Jabar Masih, to provide him physical care.

Emanuel Masih is also illiterate. Due to his injuries he could not work and had to rely on donations from charity groups. He has regained partial use of his legs but still cannot use his arms. He has been unemployed since 1999.

The two men were eventually released on bail. In the intervening nine years, Emanuel Masih and Amin Masih continued to attend court hearings. But on May 24 they were arrested and given a five-year prison sentence along with a fine of 25,000 rupees (US$320). Lawyers appealed the decision in September at a Faisalabad court.

 

Trying to get out

Emanuel Masih could be released from prison due to an article in Pakistan criminal law that requires proper facilities for an incapacitated person. If they are not available the prisoner can be released without a court order.

In September Durrani filed a petition of release to Pakistani Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta, who is in charge of the country’s internal security. Without the use of his arms, Emanuel Masih could not survive in prison unless Amin assisted him.

“His brother-in-law feeds and washes him,” Durrani said. “That’s why he has been able to survive until now.” 

Gupta requested a medical examination of Emanuel Masih, which declared him incapacitated. The final decision to let him go rests with the jail superintendent, who received the report from the home secretary in early December.

Faisalabad is located in Punjab, near the Indian border. Radical religious elements in Punjab have become active in carrying out Islamic terrorist acts outside Pakistani borders. Two of the nine identified gunmen in the Nov. 26 attacks in Mumbai that killed 188 and injured 293 were from this city of 2.6 million.

On Wednesday, Dec. 17, Muslims set fire to a church in a nearby village as its parishioners were decorating for Christmas. The attackers left behind a letter telling the Christians they would be damned to hell if they did not become Muslims, according to International Christian Concern.

Parish priest Yaqoob Yousaf has called for security forces to arrest the culprits quickly, for fear of similar attacks on the congregation during its Christmas Day services.  

Report from Compass Direct News