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


Witnesses expected to connect murder of three Christians with political conspiracy.

MALATYA, Turkey, January 20 (Compass Direct News) – Lawyers in the case of three Christians who were murdered for their faith here are lining up witnesses in an effort to expand the accused from five young suspects to subversive forces at the top of state power.

Evidence in recent hearings suggests the April 2007 murders in southeast Turkey were instigated by Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer a coup d’état in Turkey.

At a hearing at Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Jan. 16), plaintiff attorneys said they would like to call as a witness Ergun Poyraz, a journalist arrested in 2007 who has been linked to Ergenekon. Prosecuting attorneys said they believe that Poyraz, who has written inflammatory rhetoric against missionaries and accused Turkey’s prime minister of being part of a Zionist conspiracy, was not directly involved in planning the murders but has important knowledge of the players within Ergenekon.

The lawyers said they hope his testimony will help sort out the tangled web of connections and determine the role of Malatya security forces in the attack, particularly that of the chief of police in the district, Ali Osman Kahya.

“In the course of the publishing house murders, Ali Osman Kahya was the head of Malatya security forces, which is no coincidence,” said plaintiff attorney Murat Dincer. He said Kahya had been in similar positions of authority during other political murders.

Other lawyers involved in the case said they are less hopeful, believing Poyraz will only use his testimony as a platform for political grandstanding and propaganda for the political conspiracy.

“I don’t believe he will be helpful,” one legal worker told Compass. “I think he will only put on a show and manipulate the subject.”

Poyraz was arrested in 2007 for having connections to the Association for the Union of Patriotic Forces, a group whose members include military men also indicted in Ergenekon. Turkish media recently revealed that Poyraz had been keeping detailed records on high-level military officials prior to his arrest, according to Today’s Zaman national daily.

The team of plaintiff lawyers has requested Poyraz’s written statements from the Istanbul 13th Criminal Court.

The court in Malatya has sent an informal inquiry to the prosecutor of the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul asking if there is a concrete connection between the Ergenekon case and the Malatya murders. If the prosecutor replies positively, the Malatya court will decide whether to integrate the murder trial with the Ergenekon case.

If the cases are not integrated, then the five young suspects will likely be tried for murder in a matter of months, and all will receive life sentences, said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers who represent the interests of the victims’ families.

Lawyers said they believe establishing the guilt of the suspects should be a straightforward process, but Cengiz said that if the case is integrated into Ergenekon, “then it will continue forever.”

No witnesses testified at the Friday hearing. The plaintiff team eventually hopes to bring 21 witnesses to the stand in subsequent hearings.


Impact on Defense

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed at a publishing house in Malatya on April 18, 2007.

Emre Gunaydin – the suspected ringleader – along with Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who have been in jail for the past 18 months, are accused of the murder. They were all between 19 and 21 years old at the time of the crime.

The Malatya trial judges and defense attorneys are also adjusting their legal proceedings in light of the case’s incipient expansion from a murder case to an investigation into the political conspiracy. Noting that there could have been others involved in the murder, Presiding Judge Eray Gurktekin quoted an article from the Turkish Penal Code that states a punishment can be reduced if the guilty party is found to be solicited for the crime.

“You should think about considering this,” he said to defense lawyers.

The lawyer for Gunaydin said he had reminded his client of this article, and that they wanted to pursue this legal line in the next hearing.

Plaintiff attorneys won a minor legal victory that had eluded them in earlier hearings: The hearings will now be recorded. In previous months Malatya judges refused three plaintiff requests to record the trial hearings.

In February 2008 an Istanbul court allowed the first courtroom taping of a trial hearing at the trial of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007.


Unearthing Plot

Earlier this month, Turkish police uncovered major arms caches by excavating sites connected to Ergenekon members. Security forces believe the weapons indicated the future plans of the group and their violent activates in the past.

Two weeks ago a new wave of detentions revealed evidence that the group was planning to assassinate the prime minister, members of the Supreme Court of Appeals, and Armenian community leaders.

Older Ergenekon documents make mention of church members in Turkey in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon. Members of those churches were attacked or killed in following years. This month a 19-year-old Muslim in Izmir was sentenced to prison for stabbing a Catholic priest in 2007.

The Ergenekon organization has been blamed for the murder of other high-profile Christians. Ergin Cinmen, the lawyer for the family of Dink, has called for an investigation into the links between Ergenekon, the Malatya massacre and the murders of Dink and Father Andrea Santoro, an Italian priest killed in Trabzon in 2006.

He made these comments in the context of recently discovered plans to attack the Armenian community of Sivas in central Turkey, according to Bianet, an online Turkish news service.

In the last year, police have arrested more than 100 people in the ongoing Ergenekon case, which has been the dominant event in Turkish media for several months.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Christians meet with Al-Maliki, ask for troops and provincial voting rights.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (Compass Direct News) – Amid escalating violence against Christians, Iraqi church leaders have appealed directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for increased efforts to curb the continuing attacks In Mosul.

In a meeting with Al-Maliki, 10 heads of Iraqi churches urged the prime minister on Thursday (Oct. 16) to send the army to Mosul to help the approximately 1,000 police that were dispatched this past week to keep watch over Christians in the city.

Church leaders said police efforts to curb violence were insufficient and more needed to be done to stabilize the city, from which an estimated 1,500 families have fled following recent killings of Christians.

Al-Maliki assured the church heads that he would do whatever was in his power in cooperation with them and that he hoped to send soldiers to Mosul “immediately,” said Shlemon Warduni, an auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean Church in Bagdad present at the meeting.

“He is upset and he’s sorry for what is happening,” said Warduni. “He is going to do whatever he can in cooperation with those who work with him.”

Members of the Christian communities believe that the police already sent to the city have made little difference and more forces are needed to ensure peace.

“I hope they will follow it up with more action; that they will continue as they said themselves until there is peace,” said Warduni. “We firmly ask for the army to be sent in the hopes that peace will come back and people will return to their homes.”

Father Basher Warda of St. Peter’s Seminary, spoke by phone to Compass with similar urgency. Government officials have visited Mosul and the victims promising to help, “but there is nothing,” said Fr. Warda. “A few initiatives here and there, but they cannot correspond to the whole crisis.”

He pointed out how no military spokesman has said Mosul is now secure, leaving only the government’s promises.

“The whole system needs to be reconsidered,” Fr. Warda said. “In a crisis the government should not take any holiday or rest, but they said, ‘We will see what to do in the coming days.’ But it’s not a matter of coming days; it’s a matter of families who have left everything behind.”

Families are still fleeing as threats, bombings and deaths persist in Mosul, according to Fr. Warda. He said 20 percent of the displaced people he has spoken to said they had been directly threatened before they fled Mosul. Others described how they witnessed threats against their neighbors, “the killing of a man, or a father and his son,” in their streets.

“These [accounts] … show there is something planned to evacuate Christians form Mosul,” he said. “They say: ‘We cannot risk it.’”


Change in Parliament

It is not clear who is behind the attacks on Christians in Mosul, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have been conducting operations against the Sunni militant group al-Qaeda.

The displacement of Christians follows comes on the heels of an Iraqi parliamentary vote to drop a clause in its new provincial election law, Article 50, that protected rights of minorities by guaranteeing their representation on provincial councils.

The change earlier this month sparked protests from Christians in Mosul, which some believe have fueled the attacks on the Christian community.

In their meeting with Al-Maliki, church community leaders also pleaded for the re-instatement of Article 50. Al-Maliki assured them he would bring it to the attention of Parliament in the next session, Warduni said.

Although unwilling to draw direct links to the demonstrations, Fr. Warda did tell Compass that he thought the attacks were coordinated.

“Maybe it’s a coincidence, and maybe it’s an occasion for violence,” said Fr. Warda. “But whatever the reason was, it looks like there was a plan [for the violence]. We cannot say it’s just a coincidence, it happened in such a quick way.”

He called the effort to clear Christians out of Mosul, a “massive task.”

“We are talking about 1,700 families who have fled in nine days,” he said.

In the wake of attacks on churches and individuals, Iraqi Christians have fled to surrounding villages leaving homes and businesses.

Some of Mosul’s refugees have sought shelter across the border in either Turkey or Syria. It is the small and unprepared villages surrounding the city, however, that have borne the brunt of the displacement, according to Fr. Warda.

For now, the primary concern of church leaders is the safe return of those who have fled.

“[Mosul is] their history, their heritage, memories are there. Every beautiful memory is there. We have to do something,” said Fr. Warda. He said those he spoke to were too afraid to go back to their homes and did not know if they could trust the government for their security.

Asked whether he thought Mosul would lose its entire Christian population, Fr. Warda said, “I don’t care to think about it, because it would be a tragedy for all people. The choices are so limited. My concern now is for Christians who are leaving.”

Although “hopeful” about the situation of Mosul’s Christian community, Warduni did not hesitate to criticize what he calls the “silence” of the international community on the human rights of Iraq’s Christian community.

“I want to tell the developed world that from the outset no one has said anything,” he said. “No one is talking about the rights of Christians and minorities in Iraq. We are waiting for support from the outside, at least as human beings not only as Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News