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


Baseless Case Against Turkish Christians Further Prolonged

Justice Ministry receives international inquiry about progress of trial.

SILIVRI, Turkey, February 15 (CDN) — Barely five minutes into the latest hearing of a more than three-year-old case against two Christians accused of “insulting Turkishness and Islam,” the session was over.

The prosecution had failed to produce their three final witnesses to testify against Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for alleged crimes committed under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. The same three witnesses had failed to heed a previous court summons to testify at the last hearing, held on Oct. 15, 2009.

This time, at the Jan. 28 hearing, one witness employed in Istanbul’s security police headquarters sent word to inform the court that she was recovering from surgery and unable to attend. Of the other two witnesses, both identified as “armed forces” personnel, one was found to be registered at an address 675 miles away, in the city of Iskenderun, and the other’s whereabouts had not yet been confirmed.

So the court issued instructions for the female witness to be summoned a third time, to testify at the next hearing, set for May 25. The court ordered the witness in Iskenderun to submit his “eyewitness” testimony in writing to the Iskenderun criminal court, to be forwarded to the Silivri court. No further action was taken to summon the third witness.

International Inquiry

Judge Hayrettin Sevim, who has presided over the last five hearings on the case, informed the plaintiff and defense lawyers that recently his court had been requested to supply the Justice Ministry with a copy of relevant documents and details from the case file.

An inquiry outside Turkey about the progress of the case, he said, prompted the request.

Seven different state prosecutors have been assigned to the case since Prosecutor Ahmet Demirhuyuk declared at the fourth hearing in July 2007 that “not a single concrete, credible piece of evidence” had been produced to support the accusations against the Protestant defendants. After Demihuyuk recommended that the charges be dropped and the two Christians acquitted, he was removed from the case.

Originally filed in October 2006, the controversial Article 301 case accused Tastan and Topal, both former Muslims who converted to Christianity, of slandering the Turkish nation and Muslim religion while involved in evangelistic activities in Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul in northwestern Turkey.

After Turkey enacted cosmetic changes in the wording of Article 301 in May 2008, all cases filed under this law require formal permission from the justice minister himself to go on to trial.

According to the Turkish Justice Ministry, only eight of more than 900 Article 301 cases sent for review since the law’s revision have been approved for prosecution. On Friday (Feb. 12) the Justice Ministry declined in writing a Compass request last month for a list of the eight cases in question.

Despite the lack of any legally credible evidence against Tastan and Topal, the Silivri case is one of those eight cases personally approved by the Justice Minister.

According to a CNNTURK report dated Dec. 8, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama raised the Article 301 issue with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their last face-to-face meeting in Washington, D.C.

“I think those asking about this don’t know what Article 301 is,” Erdogan reportedly said. “Until now it has only happened to eight persons.”

This month the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized Turkey’s revision of Article 301, declaring that the government should simply abolish the law.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg also warned earlier this month that Turkey is violating Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights to the extent that the European Court of Human Rights may impose sanctions on Turkey over Article 301.

Noting that the Assembly welcomed previous amendments to the law, the most recent PACE report declares it “deplores the fact that Turkey has not abolished Article 301.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

How an Australian-born pastor survived a Molotov cocktail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had he seen big changes in the country?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Australian Territory Approves Same-Sex Civil Ceremonies

By Patrick B. Craine

CANBERRA, Australia, November 11, 2009 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has legalized civil partnership ceremonies for homosexuals.

Same-sex couples in the ACT have been able to register their union since last year, but were not permitted a ceremony.

The legislature of the territory, where the nation’s parliament is located, passed the bill on Wednesday, following an amendment banning opposite-sex couples from obtaining the civil unions.  The bill was moved by the ACT’s Greens party.

The ACT’s amendment was passed so as to satisfy federal requirements that such unions not mimic marriage.

"We understand that this is not same-sex marriage," said Shane Rattenbury, the Greens member who drafted the bill.  "This legislation is another step along the road to full equality for same-sex couples in Australia, and we are delighted that the assembly has passed it today."

The federal Commonwealth Parliament, which has the power to override legislation passed in the country’s two territories, has strongly opposed same-sex "marriage," and the ACT legislature has been fighting with them for same-sex civil unions since 2006.

That year, the ACT passed legislation approving same-sex civil unions, but their attempt was struck down by then-Governor General Michael Jeffery on the advice of then-Attorney General Philip Ruddock.

The law would have effectively granted same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples, simply leaving out the term "marriage."  At the time, then-Prime Minister John Howard said the ACT’s move sought to undermine the nation’s 2004 Marriage Amendment Bill, which established marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and specifically excluded same-sex "marriage."

Regarding the current bill, one member of the ACT’s legislature, Vicki Dunne, who serves as shadow attorney-general, predicted that the federal government would stop the bill.  "It is almost certain the Commonwealth will intervene," she told the Telegraph.  "It still sounds like a marriage and it still feels like a marriage and therefore it probably is a marriage."

Last year, the federal government granted new legal and financial benefits to same-sex couples by making changes to about 100 federal laws.  Nevertheless, they continued to declare their intention to uphold the true definition of marriage.

"The government believes that marriage is between a man and a woman so it won’t amend the marriage act," said Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

Australia’s Senate has now initiated an inquiry into the Marriage Amendment Bill, however, hearing arguments this week both for and against same-sex "marriage."  The submissions the committee received, totalling more than 20,000, were against same-sex "marriage" by a ratio of two to one.

This Report from LifeSiteNews.com


Repressive Religion Law and new punishments enter force

Azerbaijan’s repressive new Religion Law slid in under the radar, reports MNN.

Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association says it’s been modified since the last time they saw it. “It appears that this is a little bit worse than what we thought it was going to be. Just looking at parts of this legislation, now in force as of May 31, it seems like there have been some new offenses that have been added to it as well as some new penalties.”

Some of the changes include severe censorship and harsher punishments. These were introduced for religious activities and agencies the government does not like.

Griffith went on to say that all registered religious organizations must re-register by 1 January 2010, the third time re-registration has been demanded in less than twenty years. Earlier re-registration rounds saw many churches and ministries fail to regain their legal status.

He agrees with the assessment of Forum 18, that the wording implies unregistered organizations are illegal.

As it is, under the existing rules, Griffith says they’ve already felt the heat. “We’ve had several evangelical pastors jailed because of their ministry. So it seems, at least within Azerbaijan, that there is an intent to try to crack down on evangelical churches.”

However, there are some unexpected allies. According to Forum 18, Parliamentary Deputy Fazil Gazanfarolgu Mustafaev said, “the new Religion Law will limitpeople’s rights to freedom of conscience – that is clear.”

Gazanfarolgu added that public pressure may force parliamentary deputies to take another look at the Religion Law, given public unhappiness over the way religion is controlled.

Griffith adds that while it looks bad, it’s too early to know how much evangelistic work could be at risk. “How this new law is going to be enforced, only time will tell. As I say, we have seen at least some in Parliament who are wanting to believe that there will be some public pressure brought to bear to have this re-examined, so I think this needs to be our chief hope and prayer.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Azerbaijan is apparently rushing restrictive amendments to its Religion Law through parliament, Forum 18 News Service has learnt.

“Only the parliamentary deputies have the text, and it will only be published after its adoption,” a parliamentary aide told Forum 18. The amendments – which reportedly include a ban on unregistered religious activity – have not been made public, and the full parliament is due to begin consideration of them on Friday 8 May.

The refusal to make the text public denies the opportunity for public discussion of the proposals, complains Eldar Zeynalov of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan. “Everything prepared in top secrecy is bad for human rights,” he told Forum 18.

Parliamentary Deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova, who chairs one of two committees which prepared the draft, told Forum 18 that state registration will be compulsory, but claimed that: “No one will be punished for practicing without registration, as long as they don’t preach against the national interest or denigrate the dignity of others.” She declined to discuss what this means, and confirmed that religious communities will have to re-register. Religious communities – especially of minority faiths – have struggled to re-register after previous changes.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


After nearly two and half years in jail, elderly men’s 10-year sentences overturned.

ISTANBUL, April 21 (Compass Direct News) – After more than two years in a Pakistani jail, two elderly Christian men convicted of “blasphemy” against the Quran were acquitted on Thursday (April 16) when a high court in Lahore overturned their 10-year sentence.

James Masih, 67, and Buta Masih, 72, were accused of burning pages from the Quran in October 2006 and were also tried under an anti-terrorism law because their actions were deemed to have created fear and panic. In a case that drew crowds of Islamic fanatics, they were convicted on Nov. 25, 2006 of blaspheming Islam’s sacred book.

The pair has claimed from the start that the blasphemy charges were fabricated due to a dispute over a plot of land that a Muslim neighbor wanted James Masih to sell.

“It happens many times, it is always a false story due to some other enmity,” said Father Yaqub Yousaf, the men’s parish priest. “Pastors and priests, we tell them that it is better not to speak on religion with the Muslims, not to say anything that can hurt them, so normally they don’t do that.”

After rumors erupted that the two men had burned pages of the Quran on Oct. 8, 2006, some 500 Muslims attempted to kill them. Police arrested the two Christians and held off the crowds, which stayed outside the police station through the night.

The Christian men launched an appeal soon after their conviction and have since remained in prison.

“I appeared in court 27 times during the appeal,” said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, their lawyer. “Most of the time the judges postponed the case, saying, ‘We will hear the case next time.’”

Sindhu told Compass that religious bias and public pressure led to the judge’s original decision to sentence the men and could have had much to do with the delays in hearing the appeal.

“At the last hearing [Dec. 15, 2008], the judge reserved judgment, which according to law has to be given within three months,” he said. “But it was over three months, so I went to court and told him, ‘These are old men and they are sick, so please announce the judgment.’”

James Masih was hospitalized three times during his internment, receiving treatment for a chest infection.

“Jail is totally different [in Pakistan], you hardly have proper food, and no facilities,” said Fr. Yousaf. Sources said both men were traumatized by their ordeal, an effect also felt keenly by their families, who were rarely able to visit.


Permanent Stigma

Articles 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran and death for insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Although the law has not been implemented to the full extent of capital punishment or life in prison since its introduction in 1986, there have been more than 20 deaths recorded in blasphemy-related violence.

Even after their acquittal and release, Sindhu said, the men will not be able to immediately return home.

“It is dangerous now, we will not send them to their home,” said Sindhu. “We will keep them away for one to two months until the situation changes. Anyone can kill them.”

Christians previously accused of blasphemy continued to experience prejudice and sometimes violence even after being cleared of the charges.

“It is difficult for the blasphemy accused to find work,” commented Wasim Muntizar from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. “Churches are afraid to help them, because fanatics won’t hesitate to kill the ‘blasphemer’ and attack the church.”

Although the families of James and Buta Masih remain excited at the prospect of the pair’s upcoming return home, Fr. Yousaf has urged them to keep their celebrations muted.

“They are excited, yes, but I told them not to express so strongly their joy about it,” he said. “I requested them to keep it secret, because it may not be safe – some of the Muslims may say the court has not taken the right decision. In the past people have been killed after being acquitted.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Violence marred the beginning of India’s four-week national election process. In 14 attacks on polling stations, 17 people were killed in eastern and central India, reports MNN.

Founder of Gospel For Asia KP Yohannan, speaking from India, says this election violence and the threat of violence has postponed their Orissa State house rebuilding project. “With the election and the unfavorable situation with the bureaucrats that are very anti-Christian in Kandhamal and several other districts, they didn’t want to give us protection.”

Yohannan is praying for a change in the government. “I think they’re going to hear the voice of people that they’re not in favor of this kind of abuse and hurting the minorities, especially the Christians. This election is going to bring some changes to the state of Orissa, and we’re praying for that.”

Yohannan continues: “All Hindus are not anti-Christian. Unfortunately, this is the extremist minority who is going about causing so much destruction, killing people, and inflicting suffering on Christians.”

Gospel for Asia has committed to rebuilding 1,000 homes at about $2,000 to $3,000 each. Yohannan says this program is expected to resume after the elections. “We may have greater protection and help from the changed new government in the state of Orissa to rebuild these houses and help the people who lost everything.”

Hundreds of thousands of Christians were displaced in the Orissa state violence that began in August 2008. Homes were burned to the ground. Some Christians were killed. Others were chased into the forest, fearing for their lives. Many remain there.

Yohannan says the anti-Christian violence back-fired. “Persecuting Christians is not a way to stop the Christian faith. Even today, in spite of all the persecution, people are coming to Christ.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


The Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan plans to initiate amendments to the controversial Law on Religion and Religious Associations, signed by the president on March 25, the party’s vice chairman Muhammadali Haiit told journalists on Monday, reports Interfax-Religion.

“In our view, this law defies one of the basic constitutional rights of our citizens – the freedom of religion. We plan to submit a bill amending this law to the lower house of parliament,” he said.

The new law aroused fears in the United States that it will put curbs on the freedom of religion in Tajikistan, while local opposition leaders described it as a direct violation of citizens’ constitutional rights. The law legitimizes state censorship of religious literature, limits religious rites to officially allotted venues and allows the state to control the activities of religious associations.

The law bans praying at work, in military units and other places not connected directly with the administering of religious rites.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Accepting Islamic law in exchange for peace leaves many uncertain, fearful.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Just over a month since Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules, the fate of the remaining Christians in the area is uncertain.

Last month, in an effort to end a bloody two-year battle, the Islamabad administration struck a deal with Taliban forces surrendering all governance of Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Sources told Compass that after the violence that has killed and displaced hundreds, an estimated 500 Christians remain in the area. Traditionally these have been low-skilled workers, but younger, more educated Christians work as nurses, teachers and in various other professions.

The sole Church of Pakistan congregation in Swat, consisting of 40 families, has been renting space for nearly 100 years. The government has never given them permission to buy land in order to build a church building.

An associate pastor of the church in central Swat told Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace that with the bombing of girls schools at the end of last year, all Christian families migrated to nearby districts. After the peace deal and with guarded hope for normalcy and continued education for their children, most of the families have returned to their homes but are reluctant to attend church.

The associate pastor, who requested anonymity, today told sources that “people don’t come to the church as they used to come before.” He said that although the Taliban has made promises of peace, the Christian community has yet to believe the Muslim extremists will hold to them.

“The people don’t rely on Taliban assurances,” said Benjamin.

Last week the associate pastor met with the third in command of the main Taliban militant umbrella group in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Kari Abdullah, and requested land in order to build a church. Abdullah reportedly agreed, saying that Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and that his group intended to provide equal opportunities to the religious communities of Swat.

The Catholic Church in Swat is located in a school compound that was bombed late last year. Run by nuns and operated under the Catholic Church Peshawar Diocese, the church has been closed for the last two years since insurgents have been fighting government led forces, source said.

Parliamentarian Shahbaz Bhatti said Christians and the few Hindus in Swat valley have lived under terror and harassment by the Taliban since insurgents began efforts to seize control of the region. He met with a delegation of Christians from Swat last month who said they were concerned about their future, but Bhatti said only time will tell how the changes will affect Christians.

“The Christian delegation told me that they favor the peace pact if indeed it can bring peace, stability and security to the people living there,” he said. “But they also shared their concern that if there is enforcement of sharia, what will be their future? But we will see how it will be implemented.”

Although there have been no direct threats against Christians since the establishment of the peace accord, some advocates fear that it may only be a matter of time.

“These days, there are no reports of persecution in Swat,” Lahore-based reporter Felix Qaiser of Asia News told Compass by phone, noting the previous two years of threatening letters, kidnappings and aggression against Christians by Islamic extremists. “But even though since the implementation of sharia there have been no such reports, we are expecting them. We’re expecting this because other faiths won’t be tolerated.”

Qaiser also expressed concern about the treatment of women.

“They won’t be allowed to move freely and without veils,” he said. “And we’re very much concerned about their education there.”

In the past year, more than 200 girls schools in Swat were reported to have been burned down or bombed by Islamic extremists.

Remaining girls schools were closed down in January but have been re-opened since the peace agreement in mid-February. Girls under the age of 13 are allowed to attend.

Since the deal was struck, seven new sharia judges have been installed, and earlier this month lawyers were trained in the nuances of Islamic law. Those not trained are not permitted to exercise their profession. As of this week, Non-Governmental Organizations are no longer permitted in the area and vaccinations have been banned.

“These are the first fruits of Islamic law, and we’re expecting worse things – Islamic punishment such as cutting off hands, because no one can dictate to them,” Qaiser said. Everything is according to their will and their own interpretation of Islamic law.”


Launch Point for Taliban

Analysts and sources on the ground have expressed skepticism in the peace deal brokered by pro-Taliban religious leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is also the leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. The insurgent, who has long fought for implementation of sharia in the region, has also fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

He was imprisoned and released under a peace deal in April 2008 in an effort to restore normalcy in the Swat Valley. Taliban militants in the Swat area are under the leadership of his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.

The agreement to implement sharia triggered alarm around the world that militants will be emboldened in the northwest of Pakistan, a hotbed for Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists fighting Western forces in Afghanistan and bent on overthrowing its government.

Joe Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy said the peace deal makes Talibanization guaranteed by law, rendering it impossible to return to a liberal democracy or any guarantee of fundamental rights.

“The government in essence ceded the region to the Taliban,” said Grieboski. “Clerical rule over the region will fulfill the desires of the extremists, and we’ll see the region become a copy of what Afghanistan looked like under Taliban rule.”

This can only mean, he added, that the Taliban will have more power to promulgate their ideology and power even as the Pakistani administration continues to weaken.

“Unfortunately, this also creates a safe launching off point for Taliban forces to advance politically, militarily and ideologically into other areas of the country,” said Grieboski. “The peace deal further demonstrates the impotence of [Asif Ali] Zardari as president.”

Grieboski said the peace deal further demonstrates that Pakistani elites – and President Zardari in particular – are less concerned about fundamental rights, freedom and democracy than about establishing a false sense of security in the country.

“This peace deal will not last, as the extremists will demand more and more, and Zardari and the government have placed themselves in a weakened position and will once again have to give in,” said Grieboski.

Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of advocacy group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, said he fears that militants in Swat will now be able to freely create training centers and continue to attack the rest of Pakistan.

“They will become stronger, and this will be the greatest threat for Christians living in Pakistan,” said Johnson.

Thus far the government has not completely bowed to Taliban demands for establishment of full sharia courts, and it is feared that the insurgents may re-launch violent attacks on civilians until they have full judicial control.

“The question of the mode of implementation has not yet been decided, because the Taliban want their own qazis [sharia judges] and that the government appointed ones should quit,” said lawyer Khalid Mahmood, who practices in the NWFP.

Mahmood called the judiciary system in Swat “collapsed” and echoed the fear that violence would spread in the rest of the country.

“They will certainly attack on the neighboring districts,” he said.

Earlier today, close to the Swat Valley in Khyber, a suicide bomber demolished a mosque in Jamrud, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than 150 others during Friday prayers. Pakistani security officials reportedly said they suspected the attack was retaliation for attempts to get NATO supplies into Afghanistan to use against Taliban fighters and other Islamist militants.

Report from Compass Direct News