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, “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

Suspicious Actions Follow Murder of Pastor in Assam, India

Body destroyed before being identified; police try to link him with poachers.

NEW DELHI, June 14 (CDN) — A pastor in Assam state was murdered and cremated without being identified last month before family members learned of his death when they saw a photo of his body in a newspaper.

The body of Son Englang, 35, was recovered alongside National Highway 37 on May 20, with marks indicating his hands had been tightly bound before he was shot. The pastor from Mallasi village, Karbi Anglong, supported by Gospel for Asia (GFA), had reportedly been kidnapped early in the morning of the previous day as he rode his bicycle to the Bokakhat marketplace to buy paint materials for his nearly completed church building.

The unknown kidnappers, suspected Hindu extremists, reportedly took him to the jungle to kill him.

Local police took his body to a hospital in Golaghat, where he was cremated without being identified after three days.

“The hospital along with the local police cremated Pastor Englang’s ‘unclaimed body,’ as there is a provision in the hospital of holding a body for a maximum of three days,” said the Rev. Juby John, Karbi Anglong diocesan secretary of GFA.

News of his death reached his family four days after he was killed when they saw a photo of his body published on May 22 in local newspapers reporting him as unidentified.

“With great difficulty, his photo could be recognized,” said John. “It was a semi-decomposed body. Pastor Englang’s brother with a few villagers identified him and then informed the pastor’s wife.”

John told Compass that Pastor Englang had evangelized in the Daithor area for 14 years, and “many, many people came to the Lord because of his extensive evangelism.”

Anti-Christian elements in the area likely had taken note of Pastor Englang’s fearless evangelism and the church building on the verge of completion, John said.

“Pastor Englang gave me a phone call just three days before he went missing,” John said. “He was very happy and excited about the completion of the church building and said it was his dream come true.”

Along with his wife, Pastor Englang is survived by a 6-month-old son and a 3-year-old daughter.

He had served with GFA since 1996, ministering in Karbi Anglong, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the site where his body was recovered.

Local media reported his death along with those of three poachers who had illegally entered Kaziranga National Park to hunt rhinoceros and were shot by park guards. The bodies of the three poachers were recovered from the park the same day that police found Pastor Englang dead on the highway.

Strangely, police reported Pastor Englang as a poacher accompanying the three who were killed inside the wildlife park. Investigations are underway regarding the suspicious claim, resulting in the arrest of a park guard and a local policeman.


False Report

Questioned by media, police were unable to explain why Pastor Englang was included with the poachers given the large distance between his body and the three recovered inside the park. They were also unable to explain the marks of binding on Pastor Englang’s hands.

“There was no weapon discovered on the pastor, whereas there were ammunitions recovered from the trespassers,” John told local newspapers.

John emphasized that Pastor Englang worked day and night on the construction of his church building for the past five months.

“He had nothing to do with the poacher case,” he said. “I spoke to the villagers and his close associates, who absolutely denied any kind of involvement of the pastor even in the past. The villagers emphasized the good character and blameless record of the pastor.”

John said he went to visit Pastor Englang’s family and the church building under construction on May 24.

“The laborers working on the church construction, who personally had nothing to do with Son Englang, wept as I spoke to them about the pastor,” he said. “His death was sudden and untimely.”

Hindu extremists have a presence in the state. Hemanta Das, a 29-year-old Christian worker whom Hindu extremists had warned to stop his ministry, succumbed to injuries in a hospital on July 1, 2007, two days after extremists beat him in the Chand Mari area of Guwahati. A convert to Christianity from Hinduism, Das previously had been a supporter of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The All India Christian Council (AICC) later wrote to state officials requesting that those who killed Das be arrested and the Christian minority community protected from such attacks. AICC noted that Hindu extremist groups had warned Das of “dire consequences” if he continued preaching Christ.

At that time the Rev. Madhu Chandra, an AICC leader from northeast India, told Compass the presence of Hindu extremist groups in the state was very high.

“When I was working with a Christian organization in the state till a few years ago, many of our workers would be attacked by extremists,” Rev. Chandra said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Turkmenistan: Worship without state registration "illegal"

Turkmenistan continues to raid Protestants meeting for worship in different parts of the country, Forum 18 news Service has learnt.

One such raid was led by Turkmenistan’s former Chief Mufti, Rovshen Allaberdiev, who is now imam of Dashoguz Region as well as being the senior regional Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs official. Allaberdiev and accompanying officials confiscated Christian books during the raid, including personal Bibles.

All 22 people present were taken to a local government building, questioned and pressured to sign statements not to attend the church in future. "Some people signed and now some are afraid to come to services, especially new people," one church member told Forum 18.

"We were told it is illegal to meet without state registration. But we told them we have already applied for registration and are waiting for a response." In a separate raid in another region, police accused a pastor of violating the Religion Law by praying at a birthday party.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


Displaced Christians survive bomb blasts as violence continues in Kandhamal district.

NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A Christian couple was found murdered, a woman killed, numerous houses and churches burned and low-intensity bombs exploded at relief camps in the past week in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district, where Hindu extremist violence began more than a month ago.

On Sunday (Sept. 28), police found the body of Priyatamma Digal, an auxiliary nurse and midwife, in a river. On Monday, the body of her husband, Meghanath, was recovered. According to The Times of India newspaper, the Christian couple was killed last Thursday (Sept. 25).

This morning attacks by unidentified armed groups in the villages of Rudangia, Telingia and Gadaguda in Kandhamal resulted in more than 100 houses burned and the death of Ramani Nayak of Rudangia village, reported The Hindu. Her religious affiliation was not known at press time.

Eight people were seriously injured in the attacks, according to reports, and about 20 people received minor injuries.

Bomb blasts yesterday rocked three Kandhamal relief camps in the Nuagaon area, Mahasinghi village and Baliguda town, reported the Press Trust of India (PTI).

No casualties were reported, but the explosions left residents of the relief camps fearing for their lives.

“Since they have been successful in exploding bombs near the heavily guarded relief camp, there is no guarantee that the explosions will not take place in other camps,” one refugee told PTI.


Axe Attack

The Times of India also reported that five houses were torched in Phirigia block in Kandhamal (Gochhapada police jurisdiction) on Sunday night.

Last Thursday (Sept. 25), some 700 people armed with axes, swords, and iron bars attacked a Missionaries of Charity house in Sukananda village in Kandhamal, reported Asia News agency.

“There was no one at home, because when the violence erupted against the Christians, we took our few belongings and moved to our house in Bhubaneswar,” Sister M. Suma told the agency. “We brought with us the tabernacle, the altar, and especially the Dalit and tribal girls whom we were sheltering.”

Late on Wednesday (Sept. 24), mobs burned about 30 houses and two prayer houses in Simanjodi village and 50 houses in Batingia village, reported The Indian Express newspaper.

In Rakingia village, an Orissa Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) team that had gone to clear roadblocks was attacked, forcing the accompanying police to open fire, added the newspaper.

“Two tribal people have reportedly been killed,” the daily reported. “Sources said tribals with bows and arrows launched an attack on the ODRAF.”

According to the All India Christian Council (AICC), at least 57 people have been killed, more than 18,000 injured and over 4,300 houses, 150 churches and 13 educational institutions destroyed since the Aug. 24 outbreak of violence in Orissa. Two Christian women were also gang-raped.

The violence, which later spread to at least 14 districts of Orissa, has left more than 50,000 people homeless.

The attacks began following the killing of a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples on Aug. 23 in Kandhamal district. Maoists have claimed responsibility for the assassination, but the VHP has persisted in blaming local Christians.

According to media reports, Christians in Orissa retaliated in at least one incident. A man was killed in Raikia Block after “Dalit Christians of Gundhari village hurled bombs at the tribal-dominated village of Sirsapanga in the afternoon [of Sept. 24),” The Indian Express reported. “Sources said the deceased, Raghav Digal, a Dalit Hindu, was a government employee.”


‘Withdraw Federal Forces’

The leader of an influential tribal group believed to be instigating violence in Kandhamal demanded withdrawal of federal security personnel from the district as a “precondition” to stopping the attacks.

Yesterday Lambodar Kanhar, secretary of the Kandhamal Zilla Kui Samaj (Kui people group) Coordination Committee, was quoted by The Indian Express as saying that he was ready to give assurance that tribal people would not resort to violence if the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were taken out of the rural pockets of the district.

Kanhar accused the CRPF of having let loose “a reign of terror” on “innocent” tribal villagers.

The Global Council of Indian Christians’ Dr. Sajan K. George said Kanhar’s demand was an attempt to “complete ‘ethnic-cleansing’ of Christians.” A representative of the Christian Legal Association said Hindu extremist assailants were upset that federal forces were trying to prevent them from attacking Christians and their property.

At the same time, European Union (EU) representatives yesterday spoke to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the India-EU summit in France about the government’s failure to prevent a “massacre” of Christians in Orissa and Karnataka states.

According to the AICC, in the southern state of Karnataka at least 19 churches and 20 Christians have been attacked. At least four churches and four Christian schools had been vandalized in the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh, and four churches attacked in the southern state of Kerala. Two churches had also been damaged in the national capital, Delhi.

Singh yesterday made assurances that attacks on Christians would be stopped.

Christians from various denominations, along with people from other faiths, are holding a weeklong sit-in day and night at Jantar Mantar observatory in New Delhi that began on Friday (Sept. 26) to protest the lack of security. The demonstration demanding protection for minority targets in Orissa and other states will conclude with a motorbike rally on Thursday (Oct 2).

Christian leaders such as Dr. John Dayal, the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, A.C. Michael and Jenis Francis are participating in the protest.

This report from Compass Direct News