Burmese Army Oppresses Chin Christians, Study Says


Report shows widespread abuses, including murder, rape and forced labor.

DUBLIN, January 19 (CDN) — Burmese soldiers are systematically using forced labor, torture and rape to persecute majority-Christian residents of Chin state in western Burma, according to a report released today.

Entitled, “Life Under the Junta: Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity in Burma’s Chin State,” the report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documented “extraordinary levels of state violence” against the Chin ethnic population in Burma, also called Myanmar.

Due to the influence of U.S. missionaries last century, the Chin are estimated to be 90 percent Christian, and the study indicates that it is therefore difficult to separate religious attacks from ethnic and other human rights abuses. Persecution of Christians is reportedly part of a wider campaign by the Burmese junta to create a uniform society in which the only accepted religion is Buddhism, according a 2007 government memo circulated in Karen state giving instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.

Respondents who were specifically targeted for their Christian faith and ethnicity said soldiers had threatened them with the destruction of their homes or villages and threatened to harm or kill family members. A total of 71 households from 13 of 90 villages and towns surveyed also said government authorities had destroyed their local church buildings.

The most brutal attacks included the forced conscription, abduction or murder of children under the age of 15, and the rape of men, women and children. Burmese soldiers, locally known as the Tatmadaw, also confiscated food, livestock and other property and forced families to grow the cash crop jatropha, used to produce biofuel, instead of food crops required for basic survival. The study states that this caused many Chin to flee across land borders to India or Bangladesh.

Burmese soldiers were responsible for 94.2 percent of all specifically ethnic and religious incidents in the survey, supporting claims by advocacy organizations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide that the military government is systematically working to “cleanse” Burma of ethnic and religious minorities.

Government agents also placed votes for Chin residents during national elections last November, warning them that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained, and ordered a church to close after the pastor refused to wear a campaign T-shirt. (See “Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church,” Nov. 18, 2010.)

When asked why the Burmese army acted as it did, 15 percent of respondents answered, “Because we are Christians.” Another 23 percent replied, “To persecute us,” and a further 23 percent said, “Because we are Chin.”

The report confirms evidence submitted to the United Nations for Burma’s Universal Periodic Review, to take place in Geneva from Jan. 24 through Feb. 4, that holds the ruling military junta responsible for widespread abuse of its citizens.

 

‘Crimes Against Humanity’

PHR and five partner organizations, including the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), used scientific methods to carry out the survey in the early months of 2010, training 23 local surveyors to question a random sample of 621 households across all nine townships in Chin state. PHR identified the households only by survey number to protect their identity.

Those interviewed reported a total of 2,951 incidents in the previous 12 months, of which 95 percent were carried out by the Tatmadaw, local government officials, Burmese police or border security forces.

The report made a clear distinction between internationally recognized “crimes against humanity” and general human rights violations. Of the crimes against humanity, the most prevalent was forced labor for 91.9 percent of those surveyed, followed by ethnic-religious persecution at 14 percent. After these crimes came arbitrary arrest, detention or imprisonment at 5.9 percent, abduction at 4.8 percent, torture at 3.8 percent, rape or other sexual violations at 2.8 percent, murder at 1 percent and miscellaneous abuses at 0.2 percent.

As for lesser human rights violations, 52.5 percent of households surveyed reported livestock killed, 50.6 percent were forced to give food, 42.8 percent forced to give money, 12.8 percent had property attacked or destroyed, 11.2 percent had family members beaten and 9.1 percent had family members wounded from gunshots, explosions or deadly weapons.

In many cases, people suffered from the full range of human rights violations.

Six households, or 1 percent of those surveyed, reported family members killed by the Tatmadaw in 2009, with two households reporting multiple family members killed, and two of the victims being under the age of 15. Three of the six households believed they were specifically targeted because of their ethnicity and Christian faith.

An elderly grandfather who spoke to PHR in March 2010 said he felt depressed and helpless after a year when the Tatmadaw killed an 18-year-old family member and forced others in the family to build roads, porter supplies and carry weapons, threatening to kill them if they refused. The military also stole livestock, demanded food supplies, and forced the family to grow a single crop rather than food crops needed for basic survival.

“We dare not refuse the Tatmadaw, as even mothers with little children are beaten,” one respondent said.

Burmese soldiers tortured more than one person in the family of a 46-year-old man, while local government authorities forced them to relinquish livestock, food and money. Seventeen percent of torture victims and 29 percent of rape victims were under the age of 15.

A 36-year-old father of five in Paletwa township said Burmese soldiers had raped more than one member of his family at knifepoint within the past year, arbitrarily detained another member of the household at gunpoint, conscripted a family member into the army and burned down the church that once stood in his village.

In a foreward to PHR’s report, Richard Goldstone, a PHR board member and former U.N. chief prosecutor, and the Rev. Desmond Tutu of Chairman of The Elders, an independent group of prominent global leaders, urged that a U.N. commission of inquiry be established to investigate reports of human rights violations in Burma.

“It is unconscionable that suffering as dire as that of the Chin people under Burma’s dictatorship should be allowed to persist in silence,” they wrote.

They also urged Burma’s immediate neighbors and trade partners to use the occasion of Burma’s Universal Periodic Review to discuss the violations committed in Chin state and elsewhere in Burma, and work towards an alternative ‘roadmap’ to democracy for the Burmese people.

Report from Compass Direct News

Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election


Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.

 

Vague Religious Freedom

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law


Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.

 

‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.

 

Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”

 

SIDEBAR

Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Authorities Allegedly Torture Christian Girl, Family


Air Force police illegally detain 14-year-old, relatives after allegations of theft.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 29 (CDN) — Local authorities on Monday (April 26) recovered a 14-year-old Christian girl from Pakistan Air Force (PAF) police who allegedly tortured her and her family for five days here as Christian “soft targets” over false theft allegations, sources said.

Islamabad police in predominantly Sunni Muslim Pakistan removed Sumera Pervaiz from a PAF hospital, where she was recovering from injuries that a doctor said could cripple her for life. Earlier this month, according to family and police sources, PAF police were said to have illegally detained her and members of her family after PAF Wing Commander Faheem Cheema, who had hired Sumera as a maid, found gold ornaments and other valuables missing from his home in PAF Colony, Islamabad.

Cheema filed a theft complaint with local police without naming any suspects, but without informing local officers the wing commander on April 15 allegedly directed PAF police to detain Sumera and four members of her family – Pervaiz Masih, Sana Bibi, Parveen Masih and Kala Masih – who live in PAF Colony in Islamabad. PAF police allegedly failed to inform local police about detaining the family.

Cheema has denied that he ordered PAF police to detain the girl and her family members.

When District and Session Court Judge Mazhar Hussain Barlas ordered Sumera to appear at a hearing on April 22, she testified that on April 15 three persons who were not in uniform arrived at her house at midnight and detained her, her father Pervaiz Masih and the other family members.

“For many days we remained in the custody of those people, who severely tortured me during their ‘interrogation,’” she said.

When the judge asked her who had brought her to the PAF hospital, she replied that during questioning she had lost consciousness and later found herself in the hospital.

“So I don’t know who brought me there,” she said.

Because of injuries sustained during torture, Sumera is barely able to walk, said Dr. Nusrat Saleem of the PAF hospital.

“Sumera is under treatment, we are trying our best, but unfortunately the reports indicate that she might not be able to walk for the rest of her life,” Saleem told Compass.

The Pervaiz family’s Roman Catholic parish priest, Samuel James, said that the theft accusation, illegal detainment and torture would not have happened to fellow Muslims.

“I am really disturbed to see that this innocent family has been severely tortured by the police,” he said. “They have been targeted because of their faith.”

At the April 22 hearing, Sumera testified that as PAF police were questioning her, she saw her brother Imran Pervaiz also was there. The judge instructed the court to take note that PAF police had also taken her brother into custody.

In denying that he had ordered PAF to detain Sumera and her family members, Cheema reportedly said, “I don’t know anything about the illegal detention of the family, nor have I asked the police to interrogate them. They detained the family and tortured them on their own.”

Inspector Saleem Khan of the PAF police, however, indicated otherwise.

“Faheem’s family expressed their doubts about Sumera and her family, saying they are Christians and don’t belong in PAF Colony,” he said.

Initially police had tried to keep Sumera from testifying, with Station House Officer Mumtaz Sheikh telling the court, “Sumera’s health doesn’t allow her to come in the court, and she was therefore admitted in the PAF Hospital.” 

The family’s attorneys, Jamila Aslam and Shamoona Javid, replied that their client was in the hospital because she had been tortured and requested that the judge direct that she be produced in court. Barlas so ordered, and a few hours later police brought her from the PAF hospital. It was the judge also who ordered that she and her family members be removed from PAF hospital custody on Monday (April 26).

Barlas also directed police to produce Sumera’s brother, Imran Pervaiz, before the court, saying that failure to do so would result in an order for police to file a First Information Report against Cheema based on testimony by Sumera and her father.

The judge also directed police to ensure that Sumera gets a medical exam, with the results to be shown to the court.

Christian organizations including Ephlal Ministry, Peace Pakistan, Protect Foundation, Life for All and others have condemned the incident. Ephlal Ministry Chairman Mehboob Alam has called on other Christian leaders to assist the family, as they have been evicted from their PAF quarters. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still a Monarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambiguous Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: AUTHORITIES TIGHTEN GRIP ON CHRISTIANS AS UNREST ROILS


Waves of arrests hit church networks; judge asks converts from Islam to recant.

LOS ANGELES, August 11 (Compass Direct News) – Amid a violent crackdown on protestors and a purge of opponents within the Iranian government, more than 30 Christians were arrested in the last two weeks near Tehran and in the northern city of Rasht.

Two waves of arrests near Tehran happened within days of each other, and while most of those detained – all converts from Islam – were held just a day for questioning, a total of eight Christians still remain in prison.

On July 31 police raided a special Christian meeting 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Tehran in the village of Amameh in the area of Fashan. A Compass source said about 24 Christians, all converts from Islam, had gathered in a private home. In the afternoon police squads in both plain clothes and uniform raided and arrested everyone present.

“Many people stormed the villa, and in the same day they took everything,” said the source, a Christian Iranian who requested anonymity.

All present were taken by private car to their residences, where police took all their passports, documents, cash, CDs, computers and mobile phones, and from there to the police station.

“There were many cars so they could take each person with a car to their house from the meeting,” said the source. “Think of how many cars were there to arrest them. And they took all their books, PCs, CDs mobile phones, everything.”

While most of them were released the same evening, seven of them – Shahnam Behjatollah, and six others identified only as Shaheen, Maryam, Mobinaa, Mehdi, Ashraf and Nariman – all remain in detention in an unknown location. They have no contact with their family members.

Police have questioned each of their families and told them to prepare to pay bail. In the case of Behjatollah, for whom police had a warrant, authorities showed his family the official order for his arrest and told them they “knew all about him,” according to the source. Behjatollah is 34 years old, married and has a 6-year-old daughter.

The second wave of arrests of some of the same Christians near Tehran took place on Friday (Aug. 7).

“They brought the released members for interrogation to the secret police again, to get more information about their movements,” said the source.

In Rasht, a total of eight Christians belonging to the same network were arrested on July 29 and 30 in two separate rounds of arrest. Seven were released, while one, a male, remains in the city’s prison. Compass sources were unable to comment on the conditions of their arrest.

Two Women Asked to Recant

On Sunday (Aug. 9) two Christian women appeared before a judge who asked them if they would deny their newfound faith and return to Islam.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, have been held in the notorious Evin prison since March 5 accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.” In a short court session, the judge asked them if they were going to deny their faith and return to Islam, reported the Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

As both women refused to recant their faith, the judge sent them back to their prison cells “to think about it,” according to a source who spoke with family members.

“When they said, ‘Think about it,’ it means you are going back to jail,” said the source. “This is something we say in Iran. It means: ‘Since you’re not sorry, you’ll stay in jail for a long time, and maybe you’ll change your mind.’”

The source said the first goal of judges in such cases is usually to make “apostates” deny their faith through threats or by sending them back to prison for a longer time.

“This is what they said to Mehdi Dibaj, who was in prison for 10 years and martyred in 1994,” said the source about one of Iran’s well-known Christian martyrs. “The charge against them is apostasy [leaving Islam].”

FCNN reported that in the last five months the women have been unwell and have lost much weight. Esmaeilabad suffers from spinal pain, an infected tooth and intense headaches and is in need of medical attention. None has been provided so far.

With a draft penal code that may include an article mandating death for apostates in accordance to sharia (Islamic law) expected to be reviewed once again this fall when the parliamentary session begins, experts on Iran fear things may get worse for the country’s converts from Islam.

Dr. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, a senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, wrote in http://www.Iranpresswatch.org last month that false hopes have arisen from a statement by the chairman of the Majlis Legal Affairs Committee, Hojatoleslam Ali Schahroki, that a provision for mandatory death penalty for apostates had been stricken from the bill. The Council of Guardians and Iran’s Supreme Leader, he wrote, have the final say on capital punishment for leaving Islam.

“Recent political events in Iran have ushered in a new phase in the emergence of a totalitarian dictatorship,” he wrote. “Pressure on Iranian Christians is growing just as foreign powers are being blamed for rioting that broke out due to the electoral fraud. The argument on the influence of foreign powers is well known to Iranian Christians.”

Fury

Public allegations that detainees have been tortured, abused, killed and most recently – according to a top opposition official – raped in custody have fueled fury in Iran and spurred powerful conservative Ali Larijani to comment that a parliament committee would investigate the reports, reported The Associated Press.

At least four senior Intelligence Ministry figures were fired in an effort to purge officials who are opposed to the crackdown on protestors and opposition following last month’s disputed presidential elections, the AP reported yesterday.

Iranian sources said that the long-standing rift in the government between liberal and conservative factions is widening and becoming more apparent, and the two sides are in a battle of words and ideas in mass media for the first time in Iran’s history.

“Everything is in the newspaper,” the Christian Iranian source told Compass. “We have never had such a thing … the point is that now all these old problems that were inside the government between liberals and fundamentalists are coming out, and we can see them on TV, radio, newspaper, the public media in the country. It isn’t something we’re guessing anymore. It’s something you can see and read.”

The source said the crackdown on protestors and recent mass arrests are the sign of a weak government trying to show it is in control of a country roiled by discontent.

“Everyone now is saying is that the government is having problems inside so they have lost the control,” the source said. “So what they did in the last couple of weeks is that they arrested people … minority religions, Baha’i and Christians.”

On July 31, a Christian man traveling overseas from the Tehran International airport was stopped for questioning because he was wearing a black shirt, a Compass source said. The colors black and green have become associated with opposition to the government, and those wearing them are suspected of ideologically agreeing with the protestors.

The authorities found his Bible after a questioning and searching. He was taken to a room where there were others waiting, all wearing green and black shirts. Authorities confiscated his passport and have opened a case against him for carrying the Bible, said the source.

Although there has been no mention of Christians being tortured in the most recent arrests, an increase in executions of persons under the commonly fabricated charges of drug abuse and trafficking bodes ill for the future of those in Iranian prisons. As detainees are allowed neither legal counsel nor communication with their families, their conditions are nearly unknown.

On Friday (Aug. 7) Amnesty International reported an average of two executions a day since the disputed presidential elections held on June 12.

“In just over 50 days, we recorded no less than 115 executions, that is an average of more than two each day,” said Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “This represents a significant increase, even compared to the appallingly high rate of executions that has been so long a feature of the human rights scene in Iran.”

The report described the government’s attempt to suppress the mass “and largely peaceful” protests as brutal and also expressed concerns that those who were executed were likely to have been denied fair trials. Most of those executed are said to have been convicted of drug-smuggling or related offences. Authorities have not released the names of 24 prisoners executed on Wednesday (Aug. 5) in the Rejai Shahr Prison in Karaj.

Report from Compass Direct News 

The Indian government to block anti-conversion bill


 

The Indian central government is planning to block the anti-conversion bills that have been introduced by various Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state governments throughout India, but the response is not uniform, reports James Varghese, special correspondent in India for ASSIST News Service.

According to news released by the All India Christian Council (aicc) on their website http://www.christiancouncil.in, P. Chidambaram, the Home Minister of India, has decided to take a firm stand against the controversial anti-religious conversion bill. But the response is different for various state governments.

The website reported that in a state like Rajasthan, where the Congress party is in power, the central government has asked the Rajasthan government whether it plans to drop the bill passed by the earlier BJP government. In Madhya Pradesh where a BJP government is still in place, the government has decided to withhold assent.

According to the news source, the ruling party of Rajasthan has left it to the central government to drop the bill and Madhya Pradesh state has also rejected BJP government’s bill

The news source stated that broadly the bills provisions banned conversion by “force or fraud or inducement” and made it punishable. But all this, the central government says, is a violation of the freedom of religion as laid down in the constitution.

“When I was Chief Minster in those 10 years, there was no case for forcible conversion,” said Dig Vijay Singh, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, to the media.

“This is unacceptable and goes against Supreme Court judgments,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, Leader, BJP.

The BJP-led states had proposed laws in response to the increase in conversions by Christian missionaries.

Report from the Christian Telegraph