Forced from Buddhist homeland, dangers arise in Hindu-majority Nepal.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 23 (CDN) — Thrust from their homes in Bhutan after Buddhist rulers embarked on an ethnic and religious purge, Christian refugees in Nepal face hostilities from Hindus and others.
In Sunsari district in southeastern Nepal, a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, residents from the uneducated segments of society are especially apt to attack Christians, said Purna Kumal, district coordinator for Awana Clubs International, which runs 41 clubs in refugee camps to educate girls about the Bible.
“In Itahari, Christians face serious trouble during burials,” Kumal told Compass. “Last month, a burial party was attacked by locals who dug up the grave and desecrated it.”
Earlier this month, he added, a family in the area expelled one of its members from their home because he became a Christian.
Bhutan began expelling almost one-eighth of its citizens for being of Nepali origin or practicing faiths other than Buddhism in the 1980s. The purge lasted into the 1990s.
“Christians, like Hindus and others, were told to leave either their faith or the country,” said Gopi Chandra Silwal, who pastors a tiny church for Bhutanese refugees in a refugee camp in Sanischare, a small village in eastern Nepal’s Morang district. “Many chose to leave their homeland.”
Persecution in Bhutan led to the spread of Christianity in refugee camps in Nepal. Though exact figures are not available, refugee Simon Gazmer estimates there are about 7,000-8,000 Christians in the camps – out of a total refugee population of about 85,000 – with many others having left for other countries. There are 18 churches of various faiths in the camps, he said.
“Faith-healing was an important factor in the spread of Christianity in the camps,” said Gazmer, who belongs to Believers’ Church and is awaiting his turn to follow five members of his family to Queensland, Australia. “A second reason is the high density in the camps.”
Each refugee family lives in a single-room hut, with one outdoor toilet for every two families. The Nepalese government forbids them to work for fear it will create unemployment for local residents.
Life was even harder for them before 2006, when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom where conversions were a punishable offence.
“When I began preaching in 2000, I had to do it secretly,” said Pastor Silwal of Morang district. “We could meet only surreptitiously in small groups. I used my hut as a make-shift church while many other groups were forced to rent out rooms outside the camp.”
A fact-finding mission in 2004 by Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers found that police pulled down a church structure built by Pentecostal Christians in the Beldangi camp by orders of Nepal’s home ministry. The rights group also reported that Hindu refugees ostracized the Christians, who had proceeded to rent a room outside the camp to meet three times a week for worship services and Bible study.
When the Jesus Loves Gospel Ministries (JLGM) organization sent officials from India to the Pathri camp in Morang in 2006, they found that local residents resentful of the refugees had taken note of a baptism service at a pond in a nearby jungle.
“In August, we were planning another baptism program,” JLGM director Robert Singh reported. “But the villagers put deadly poisonous chemicals in the water … Some of the young people went to take a bath ahead of our next baptism program. They found some fish floating on the water and, being very hungry – the refugees only get a very small ration, barely enough to survive on – they took some of the fish and ate them. Three of them died instantly.”
Singh also stated that poisoned sweets were left on the premises of the refugee school in the camp. They were discovered in time to avert another tragedy.
Life for Christian refugees improved after Nepal saw a pro-democracy movement in 2006 that caused the army-backed government of Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to collapse. The king was forced to reinstate parliament, and lawmakers sought to curb his powers by declaring Nepal a secular state.
Though Christian refugees are now allowed to run churches openly in the camps, ill will toward them has yet to end. When Pastor Silwal asked camp authorities to allow him to open a church in 2006, Hindu neighbors protested, saying it would cause disturbances. Camp authorities allowed him to open a tiny church in a separate room on the condition that its activities would not disturb neighbors.
Earlier in his life in Bhutan, said the 40-year-old Pastor Silwal, he had been a stern Hindu who rebuked his two sisters mercilessly for becoming Christians. He forbade them to visit their church, which gathered in secret due to the ban on non-Buddhist religions in place at the time. They were also forbidden to bring the Bible inside their house in Geylegphug, a district in southern Bhutan close to the Indian border.
“I became a believer in 1988 after a near-death experience,” Pastor Silwal told Compass. “I contracted malaria and was on the verge of death since no one could diagnose it. All the priests and shamans consulted by my Hindu family failed to cure me. One day, when I thought I was going to die I had a vision.”
The pastor said he saw a white-robed figure holding a Bible in one hand and beckoning to him with the other. “Have faith in me,” the figure told him. “I will cure you.”
When he woke from his trance, Silwal asked his sisters to fetch him a copy of the Bible. They were alarmed at first, thinking he was going to beat them. But at his insistence, they nervously fetched the book from the thatched roof of the cow shed where they had kept it hidden. Pastor Silwal said he tried to read the Bible but was blinded by his fever and lost consciousness.
When he awoke, to his amazement and joy, the fever that had racked him for nearly five months was gone.
Pastor Silwal lost his home in 1990 to the ethnic and religious purge that forced him to flee along with thousands of others. It wasn’t until 1998, he said, that he and his family formally converted to Christianity after seven years of grueling hardship in the refugee camp, where he saw “people dying like flies due to illness, lack of food and the cold.”
“My little son too fell ill and I thought he would die,” Silwal said. “But he was cured; we decided to embrace Christianity formally.”
In 2001, Bhutan4Christ reported the number of Bhutanese Christians to be around 19,000, with the bulk of them – more than 10,500 – living in Nepal.
When persecution by the Bhutanese government began, frightened families raced towards towns in India across the border. Alarmed by the influx of Bhutanese refugees, Indian security forces packed them into trucks and dumped them in southern Nepal.
Later, when the homesick refugees tried to return home, Indian security forces blocked the way. There were several rounds of scuffles, resulting in police killing at least three refugees.
Simon Gazmer was seven when his family landed at the bank of the Mai river in Jhapa district in southeastern Nepal. Now 24, he still remembers the desolation that reigned in the barren land, where mists and chilly winds rose from the river, affecting the morale and health of the refugees. They lived in bamboo shacks with thin plastic sheets serving as roofs; they had little food or medicine.
“My uncle Padam Bahadur had tuberculosis, and we thought he would die,” said Gazmer, who lives in Beldangi II, the largest of seven refugee camps. “His recovery made us realize the grace of God, and our family became Christians.”
The plight of the refugees improved after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in, receiving permission from the government of Nepal to run the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there were 111,631 registered refugees in seven camps run in the two districts of Jhapa and Morang.
Though Nepal held 15 rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan for the repatriation of the refugees, the Buddhist government dragged its feet, eventually breaking off talks. Meantime, international donors assisting the refugee camps began to grow weary, resulting in the slashing of aid and food. Finally, seven western governments – Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands – persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in third countries.
The exodus of the refugees started in 2007. Today, according to the UNHCR, more than 26,000 have left for other countries, mostly the United States. A substantial number of the nearly 85,000 people left in the camps are ready to follow suit.
Although they now have a new life to look forward to, many of Bhutan’s Christian refugees are saddened by the knowledge that their homeland still remains barred to them. So some are looking at the next best thing: a return to Nepal, now that it is secular, where they will feel more at home than in the West.
“I don’t have grand dreams,” said Pastor Silwal. “In Australia I want to enroll in a Bible college and become a qualified preacher. Then I want to return to Nepal to spread the word of God.”
Report from Compass Direct News
UTTARAKHAND, India, November 3 (CDN) — Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Oct. 25 disrupted the Sunday worship of a Ministry of the Gospel service in Rudrapur and accused the pastor of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the extremists barged into the worship service led by Pastor Victor Massey, tore Bibles and took all Christian literature. They threatened to attack anew if the congregation continued to meet for worship, adding that they would force Hindu rituals on them. Ministry of the Gospel leader S.K. Puri told Compass that church officials reported the matter to the district collector and superintendent of police, but when Hindu nationalists heard about the complaint they accosted Pastor Massey on Oct. 30 and again threatened to force Hindu rituals on the congregation. Christian leaders have asked local authorities to provide police protection.
Karnataka – A mob of about 50 Hindu extremists attacked a church on Oct. 25 in old Hubli, burning Bibles and Christian literature. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that at about 11 a.m. the Hindu hardliners barged into the prayer meeting of Assembly of God Church and dragged out Pastor David Raj. The attack reportedly began after an unidentified man in attendance repeatedly went in and out of the church building; he was requested to remain sitting so as not to disturb the sermon. The man left and returned with 50 extremists, led by area Bajrang Dal leader Jayathirtha Kati. After the Hindu extremists verbally abused the church members, set fire to the Christian literature and dragged the pastor out to the street, local police arrived and, as is customary in India, detained the victims. They took the pastor, his wife and two church members to the police station and only with local Christian leaders’ intervention were the Christians released at about 5 p.m.
Assam – Hindu extremists and the head of Dayung village called a meeting on Oct. 23 to oppose a Christian ministry after a young woman who became a Christian refused to renounce her faith, a source told Compass. Tara Sabha’s family beat and disowned her after she told the village council that she would not leave Christianity at any cost, the source said. Sabha had received Christ earlier in October. The source told Compass that Hindu extremists held Enosh Lepcha of First Evangelical Church Association of India (FECAI) responsible for the conversion, and on Oct. 23 they and the village head called a public meeting in which they threatened a social boycott if the ministry continued its activities. FECAI’s Abbay Pradhan told Compass that due to extremist pressure, the ministry has stopped many activities.
Andhra Pradesh – Suspected Hindu extremists set fire to India Mission Society Church in Warrangal on Oct. 22, damaging more than half of the building. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that unidentified people set the church building ablaze at about 2 a.m. Pastor P. Kumarswamy contacted the fire department, which arrived after more than half of the building had been destroyed. Police registered a First Information Report, and an investigation is underway.
Karnataka – Hindu nationalists forced an evangelist and other Christians to go to a police station on false charges of forcible conversion on Oct. 21 after barging into the church leader’s home and demanding money for a Hindu festival in Undedasarahalli, Chikamaglur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Hindu radicals leveled the charges after evangelist Kumar Nayak of the Assemblies of God refused to give a donation for the Diwali festival. Nayak and his family were about to leave home for the last of a three-day prayer meeting when nearly 30 extremists led by Prakash Nayak forcibly entered their house and tried to force them to give money for the Hindu rite. The intolerant Hindus verbally abused them, warning that they would not be allowed to stay in the village, and forced Nayak, his wife Bembitha, 52-year-old widow Lalitha Bai and her three children to go to the Banavara police station and filed a complaint. With GCIC intervention, all but Kumar Nayak were released at 11:30 p.m., with the evangelist detained until midnight on condition of reporting to the police station at 9 a.m. the next morning. After extensive questioning the next day, Nayak was released at 4 p.m. without being charged.
Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Oct. 18 attacked a worship service in Hyderabad, beating a pregnant woman and her child and seriously injuring a pastor’s ear. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 15 people from the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh barged into the service led by Pastor Siluvai Kumar and two others pastors, verbally abused the Christians and accused them of forceful conversion. The intolerant Hindus tore and threw Bibles and damaged the church facility, including musical instruments. The Hindu extremists later dragged a pastor identified only as Timothy to Kukatpally police station and filed a false charge of urinating on nearby temple idols. With the intervention of the local Christian leaders, police summoned the attackers to the police station, where the parties reached an agreement in which the extremists apologized to the Christians and pledged not to attack them.
Uttar Pradesh – On Oct. 15 Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) in Pratap Garh accused Pastor Sunil Singh of the Full Gospel Church of fraudulent conversion and threatened to kill him if his church continues its worship services. A source told Compass that the extremists went to the pastor’s house to deliver the threat. The Hindu hardliners filed a police complaint against the pastor of offering money to people to convert to Christianity. Police summoned the pastor to the police station for questioning, and an investigation was underway.
Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Oct. 13 stopped construction of a Methodist church building and verbally abused Pastor M. Gabriel in Nizamabad. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that the Hindu extremists along with the village head, Vital Reddy, were responsible for the hostilities. The pastor filed a police complaint charging harassment and contacted the district collector and superintendent of police, but no action had been taken at press time. An AICC representative told Compass that the pastor has stopped church construction to avoid further disturbances.
Karnataka – State police on Oct. 10 arrested Christians on false charges of forcible conversion in Gowdigere village, Hubli, Dharwad district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 9 a.m. about 30 local Hindu nationalists barged into the house of a Christian woman identified only as Venkatamma just after the end of a prayer service. The extremists falsely accused Friends Missionary Prayer Band Mission Pastor Murthy Nayak Ganesh and evangelist Chandrakanth Gopanna Lambani of fraudulently luring people to Christianity. Later the extremists forced the Christians to the village temple, and then telephoned Kundugol police who came to the temple and took the Christians to the station, charging them “punishment of criminal conspiracy,” among others. With GCIC intervention, the pastors were released on Oct. 12, but it was not clear at press time whether charges were still pending.
Punjab – Hindu extremists in Samral Chowk, Ludhiana on Oct. 6 severely beat and stabbed a Christian worker, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). At About 7:30 a.m. Vijay Kumar, an Indian Pentecostal Church worker and a former student of Punjab Bible College, was distributing gospel tracts when five Hindu extremists arrived in a vehicle with a non-numbered license plate and forced him into it. Beating and stabbing him with a knife in his chest and leg while taking him to different sites, they questioned him about how much money he had received to become a Christian and asked with which Christian groups he was associated, EFI reported. They later took him to a jungle and continued torturing him. A Christian search team began looking for Kumar at 7:30 p.m., and at 2 a.m. that night they received a phone call from him saying the assailants had taken him back to his village and thrown him from the running vehicle. He was taken to Christian Medical College with severe injuries but was recovering well. A complaint was filed at Shingaar police station, but no arrests had been made at press time.
Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists attacked a pastor and his family and later accused them of forced conversion and other false charges in Jyotipur village, Bilaspur district. Pastor Markus Das of the Assembly of God Church on Oct. 4 went to visit a family in Sadwani village along with his wife and children. On their way back their van had a flat tire, and as his friend Atul Arthur gave them a ride home, a group of people from the Rathore community – closely aligned with the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal – attacked them. They accused Pastor Das of forcible conversion and tried to drag him and others out of the vehicle, causing minor injuries. They damaged the vehicle, smashing the windows. Pastor Das and his family managed to escape, but the next morning when he went back to pick up his van, he was told that the forest department had confiscated his vehicle after allegedly finding illegal wood in it. Pastor Das said the Rathore community set a trap. “They broke the front windshield of my car and planted the wood in my car when I was away,” he said. A First Information Report has been filed against Pastor Das indicting him for forced conversion and carrying illegal wood, and the pastor has filed an FIR against members of the Rathore Community in the Gorala police station.
Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists in Raipur on Oct. 3 tried to pressure a Christian family into giving up their faith. The extremists also threatened to publicly dishonor Pastor Kamlakar Roa Bokade by filing charges of forcible conversion against him if he did not stop visiting the family of Modichandan Sahu, a convert who has regularly attended worship services for the past 15 years. Modichandan Sahu’s two daughters had married non-Christians under social pressure, and one of her sons-in-law, Bhuwan Sahu, a member of the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party, cut off relations with his in-laws several years ago because of his opposition to Christianity. Hindu extremists led by Bhuwan Sahu on Oct. 3 stormed Motichandan’s house, pressured her to give up her faith and tried to force her into Hindu ceremonies and ritual. The next day he began threatening Pastor Bokade, telling him by cell phone that they would frame him for forceful conversion. The Chhattisgarh Christian Forum has notified police of the harassment.
Kerala – Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party newspaper The Janmabhumi Daily forced sub-editor Sredevi Nair to resign from her job on Oct. 1 after management learned that she had received Jesus Christ. Nair resigned two days before her baptism, reported The Indian Catholic. The managing editor of the Janmabhumi daily, Kummanam Rajasekharan, reportedly called her during work hours and said it was not possible for a convert to continue with the newspaper. The Indian Catholic reported that Rajasekharan urged Nair to convert her Christian husband to Hinduism and have a marriage ceremony at a Hindu temple. The Indian Express quoted Janmabhumi Editor Leela Menon as saying that that she was against conversion, and that Nair was trying to malign the newspaper after her resignation.
Madhya Pradesh – Members of the Hindu extremist Abhinav Bharat on Sept. 28 stormed into a house church in Adhartal, on the outskirts of Jabalpur. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 12:30 p.m. about 15 of the intolerant Hindus arrived on motorcycles and broke into the house church meeting shouting “Jai Sri Ram [Hail to Lord Ram)” and vandalized the property, including damaging the cross at the entrance. The Hindu extremists threatened 51-year-old Pastor Peter Johnson with further attacks. Pastor Johnson filed a complaint with Adhartal police station in Jabalpur, and police have reportedly forwarded it to the City Superintendent of Police and Collector. GCIC reported that police assured a speedy investigation. The Abhinav Bharat is already under the government scanner for anti-Muslim bomb blasts, and some of their leaders holding government posts are in custody and on trial.
Madhya Pradesh – For the third time, radicals from the minority Jains religion on Sept. 27 attacked and threatened the church of Pastor Mukesh Pal of Rajgarh, Dhar district. About a dozen of the Jains, all members of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, interrupted a worship service of some 500 mainly tribal people and cursed, criticized and accused Christians of fraudulent conversion, eating cow meat and mixing harmful chemicals into anointing oil used for prayers for the sick. The Jains religion advocates non-violence and vegetarianism. After those attending the church service argued with the radicals, the extremists left but returned with five policemen. A doctor was called on the spot to test the prayer oil, and he certified it as chemical-free. Nevertheless, police arrested Pastor Mukesh Pal and Ganpat Goyal, and many from the church followed and stood outside the police station demanding the release of the two Christians. After calls from Christian friends, high-ranking officers ensured that police release the two Christians. Pastor Pal told Compass that the radicals attacked their prayer hall in June 2006, badly damaging it. They arrived again in August 2006, warning the Christians not to hold more services and accusing them of forcible conversion, although they did no physical harm.
Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists led by Venkat Reddy attacked a Christian identified only as Abhishek, from Hebron Church, and accused him of forceful conversion on Sept. 25 in Ranga Reddy. The All Indian Christian Council (AICC) reported that the extremists attacked the Christian while he was conducting a Bible school class at Hamamguda, mercilessly beating him and accusing him of organizing the study program to forcibly convert children to Christianity. Abhishek received treatment at Apollo Santoshnagar Hospital, reported AICC. The extremists filed a police complaint against the Christian, but later forced the Christian to agree to stop the Bible program.
Report from Compass Direct News