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.”



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

Church burnt to ashes by Hindu radicals in India

A church was burnt down by Hindu radicals on Tuesday, December 8, 2009, in the Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh state, India, reports James Varghese, special correspondent in India for ASSIST News Service.

According to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), police investigations revealed that, at around 2.00 am, members belonging to Hindu radical groups, Rashtriya Swayam Sevaks and Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP), poured petrol [gasoline] on Jesus Lights Manna Church and set it on fire.

The source said that the main entrance door of the church, the altar, window panes, church Amplifier (PA system), service books and Bibles were burnt to ashes.

It was known through the source that it happened that later, at around 4.00 am, people who saw the church burning informed Pastor Mengu Elia staying near the church and, in turn, Pastor Mengu Elia informed about the incident at the nearest police station and filed a First Information Report (FIR) against the Hindu radicals.

The source said that the police officials have arrested a BJP leader and another culprit who were alleged to have directly involved in setting the church on fire.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


Police claim amplified Easter Sunday service defamed Islam.

ISTANBUL, May 27 (Compass Direct News) – Nine pastors from two neighboring villages in Pakistan could face prison time for using loudspeakers to broadcast prayers and sermons from their churches on Easter Sunday.

Martinpur and Youngsnabad, 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of Lahore, are majority Christian villages. The nine pastors who lead congregations there say that local Muslim security forces have twisted the law to solicit a bribe.

Police arrested and detained Hafeez Gill, Fahim John, Maksud Ulkaq, and a catechist from the Catholic Church in Youngsnabad identified only as Saqab at 10 a.m. on May 16. While en route to the police station, the officers told them they would be released if they offered a bribe, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). The pastors refused and were detained, but following a public outcry from their parishioners they were released at 2:30 p.m.

Reports indicate the arrest was premeditated. A leader in the village council invited the pastors to his house for a meeting, but when they arrived in the morning local police were waiting for them.

They were taken to the police station, where Station House Officer Mirza Latif showed them two First Instance Reports (FIR) registered on May 11 claiming they had misused their speakers. The FIRs, however, state the pastors misused the speakers on Easter Sunday, which happened nearly a month earlier.

The FIRs accused the pastors of misusing their loudspeakers under Section 3/4 of the Amplifier Act. Their attorney said the reasons for their arrest were both religiously and financially motivated.

Police claimed that the church leaders had used their loudspeakers to amplify messages defaming Islam. The FIRs, however, make no mention of the content of their remarks.

“The police wanted to cause humiliation to the pastors and were also asking for money,” said CLAAS attorney Akhbar Durrani.

The case was registered by a special branch of local police forces charging the four Youngsnabad pastors. On the same day, they filed charges against the five pastors in Martinpur: Shahazad Kamarul-Zaman, Mumbarab Kuhram, Hanuk Daniel, Amar Sohail, and a fifth pastor unnamed in the police report.

Nasir Bahatti, president of the Youth Welfare Association in Youngsnabad, a Christian social organization, said the church had permission to amplify the service and that the arrests were religiously motivated.

“There is no reason to ban the loudspeaker,” he said. “They are banning our worship and prayer. But we have permission [to use them] on particular days such as Christmas and Easter.”

If the FIRs are not withdrawn, the pastors will go to court over the alleged loudspeaker violation. Police released them from jail on May 16 under the condition that they obtain bail at an upcoming hearing.

The church loudspeakers broadcasted the church prayers and sermon for villagers unable to attend the service, as is custom in some Christian villages. Pakistani law limits the use of loudspeakers in Christian worship services to a specific time allotment (and usually to villages and towns with a small Muslim population), but these restrictions were not enforced in the almost-entirely Christian villages of Youngsnabad and Martinpur.

Few such restrictions, however, are placed on Pakistani mosques. The five daily calls to prayer, Friday sermons, and Quran recitations on Islamic holidays are frequently amplified on loudspeakers. The double standard follows a traditional Islamic dictum in which church bells were not allowed to ring in areas under Islamic rule.

“The Muslims in this nation can worship according to their prayer method, so why can’t we if we are all given equal rights?” Bahatti said.

The standard of living is relatively high in these villages due to a well-educated population. There are longstanding missionary schools in the villages, and much of the population has lived abroad. English missionaries founded Youngsnabad and Martinpur 120 years ago during British colonial occupation.

Some rights groups worry that the harassment of Pakistani Christians in villages such as Martinpur and Youngsnabad could mean deteriorating conditions for religious minorities in areas once considered secure.

CLAAS reported that vandals completely ransacked a church in Bannu Cantt, in the North West Frontier Province, on May 12. They destroyed the altar, burned Bibles, and broke pews. Although the city is located in a province that borders Afghanistan, where Taliban rebels have been active, it was thought to be a relatively secure area, according to the report.

Pakistan remains in turmoil as the military moves into Swat Valley to uproot the Taliban, which has established Islamic law (sharia) in the embattled area. An estimated 2 million Pakistanis have become refugees by fleeing the area after a government evacuation order.

Report from Compass Direct News


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


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Uttar Pradesh, September 26 (Compass Direct News) – Police on Sept. 21 arrested pastor Sunil Rana in Gonda district on an anonymous tip that “forcible conversion activities” were taking place at his church’s Sunday worship. A representative of the Evangelical Fellowship of India told Compass that at around 12:30 p.m. police came to the Believers Church to make the arrest. Pastor Rana was charged for “forceful conversion” and released on bail on Sept. 23.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 20 arrested a pastor and others in Siddapur, Uttara Kannada district on false charges of “forcible conversion.” The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the independent pastor identified only as Biju and five evangelists were speaking with children in Guya Palakere village when a local Hindu extremist identified only as Halappa angrily questioned them and falsely accused them of forcible conversions. Halappa telephoned other local extremists, and soon a mob of nearly 25 intolerant Hindus surrounded the Christians and took them to the Siddapur police station. They were charged with “hurting religious sentiments,” statements conducive to public mischief and unlawful assembly. With GCIC intervention they were released on bail on Sept. 22.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 19 sealed Bethel Church in Mysore city and detained pastor Samuel Channaiah. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at around 10:30 a.m. three policemen led by a senior official identified only as Shivaram came to the rented church and questioned Channaiah about the prayer services. Shivaram falsely accused Channaiah of forcible conversions, sealed the church and took the pastor with them to the Vijayanagar police station. With GCIC intervention, Channaiah was released at around 5 p.m. without being charged. “No Sunday worship was held on Sept. 21, and the landlord has asked Channaiah to vacate the premises,” a GCIC representative told Compass.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 17 stopped a pastor’s training program in Arsikere, Hassan district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that independent pastor Hoysala Raj was attending a four-day training at St. Thomas Church on Sept. 16-19 and staying at the Vijayalakshmi Lodge. As he was returning to the lodge after a session, a policeman identified only as Nemiraju recognized Raj, whom he had previously arrested. At around 11 p.m. Nemiraju and two other police officers came to the lodge and began beating and cursing Raj. Nemiraju then took Raj to the police station, angrily questioning him about the training program and the pastors who were attending. With GCIC intervention, Raj was released Sept. 17 at 8 p.m., and he received treatment at a private clinic for internal injuries. On Sept. 17 at around 9 a.m., police went to St. Thomas Church and forced the organizers to close down the training program.

Madhya Pradesh – Three suspected Hindu extremists vandalized and set fire to St. Peter and Paul Cathedral at Pentinaka, Sadar, Jabalpur at 8 p.m. on Sept. 18. Father Anthony Rocky said the attackers broke into the building unnoticed and broke window panes, desecrated the altar, destroyed a cross and statues and burned Bibles. “They carried kerosene oil packed in polythene bags and spread it in the entire church,” Fr. Rocky said. “Setting it aflame, they absconded.” Father Davis George, principal of the adjoining St. Aloysius College, said that bystanders informed him about the fire in the cathedral. “There is no doubt that the Dharma Sena, led by Yogesh Agarwal has done this,” Fr. George said. He told Compass that the Hindu extremist group threatened church leaders some 10 days prior, saying, “We will turn the face of the church within a week’s time, as done in Orissa.” The Dharma Sena and Agarwal have been involved in many cases of intimidation and attacks on the Christian community of Jabalpur. Father Anand Muttungal, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said Madhya Pradesh has seen more than 110 cases of violence against Christians since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in December 2003. “In spite of clear evidence, the authorities have failed to take any action against the culprits,” Fr. Muttungal told Compass. “As the elections are at hand, the authorities don’t want to annoy the majorities.”

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Sept. 7 stormed a prayer meeting in Ayodhya Nagar, near Madanapally in Chittoor district. Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), said independent pastor T. Peter was blessing the new house of a widowed Christian with about 25 others present. As the prayer service was in progress, nearly 20 Hindu extremists led by a Vishwa Hindu Parishad state leader, B.R. Narendra, barged into the house shouting curses at the believers. They slapped Pastor Peter and made false allegations of forcible conversion, beating and chasing away the participants. A GCIC representative told Compass that Ravindra Babu attempted to shield Pastor Peter and the Hindu extremists repeatedly slapped and punched him, breaking two teeth. The intolerant Hindus returned to the house at around 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 8 and warned the widowed homeowner that her house would be bombed if prayer meetings continued there. Pastor Peter filed a complaint against the Hindu extremists at Madanapally police station, and the attackers concocted a complaint against the pastor for “forceful conversion.”  

Report from Compass Direct News