Interfaith Sharing: A Disturbing Practice

The article below concerns the sharing of pulpits between Muslims, Jews and Christians in a display of religious freedom. This is a disturbing practice that should not be followed by evangelical and reformed churches. The pulpit is a place for the proclaimation of the truth and is not to be polluted by every wind of doctrine. A more thorough treatment of this issue is certainly warranted but will not be given here at this time.

I am totally for religious freedom and believe that Muslims and Jews, as well as those of other faiths, have a right to worship according to their conscience. This does not mean that I believe their faiths to be right or acceptable before God, only that they must stand or fall before God and not I. However, as Christians we are obligated to remain steadfast in the truth and to not open any avenue in our churches for that which is not the truth.

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Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says

Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.


Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News

Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park

Evicted from one site and denied others, unregistered congregation resorts to open air.

LOS ANGELES, April 7 (CDN) — One of the largest unregistered Protestant churches in Beijing plans to risk arrest by worshipping in the open air this Sunday (April 10) after eviction from the restaurant where they have met for the past year.

The owner of the Old Story Club restaurant issued repeated requests for the Shouwang Church to find another worship venue, and authorities have pressured other prospective landlords to close their facilities to the 1,000-member congregation, sources said. Unwilling to subject themselves to the controls and restrictions of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the congregation has held three services each Sunday in the restaurant for more than a year.

Church members have said they are not opposed to the government and are not politically active, but they fear authorities could find their open-air worship threatening.

“Normal” (state-sanctioned) religious assembly outdoors is legal in China, and even unregistered church activity is usually tolerated if no more than 50 people gather, especially if the people are related and can cite the gathering as a family get-together, said a source in China who requested anonymity. Although the congregation technically risks arrest as an unregistered church, the primary danger is being viewed as politically active, the source said.

“For a larger group of Christians to meet in any ‘unregistered’ location led by an ‘unregistered’ leader is illegal,” he said. “The sensitivity of meeting in a park is not being illegal, but being so highly visible. Being ‘visible’ ends up giving an impression of being a political ‘protest.’”

The congregation believes China’s Department of Religious Affairs has overstepped its jurisdiction in issuing regulations limiting unregistered church activity, according to a statement church leaders issued this week.

“Out of respect for both the Chinese Constitution [whose Article 36 stipulates freedom of worship] and Christian conscience, we cannot actively endorse and submit to the regulations which bid us to cease all Sunday worship activities outside of [the] ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement’ – the only state-sanctioned church,” according to the statement. “Of course, we still must follow the teachings of the Bible, which is for everyone to submit to and respect the governing authorities. We are willing to submit to the regulations with passivity and all the while shoulder all the consequences which . . . continuing to worship outside of what is sanctioned by these regulations will bring us.”

The church decided to resort to open-air worship after a prospective landlord backed out of a contractual agreement to allow the congregation to meet at the Xihua Business Hotel, the church said in its statement.

“They had signed another rental contract with another property facility and announced during the March 22 service that they were to move in two weeks,” the source said. “In spite of the fact that they had signed a formal contract, the new landlord suddenly called them on March 22 and refused to let them use the facility.”

The landlord offered various excuses for reneging on the contract, according to church leaders, and that disappointment came after 15 months of trying to obtain the key to another property the church had purchased.

“The space in Daheng New Epoch Technology building, which the church had spent over 27.5 million RMB [US$4.2 million] to purchase, has failed to hand the key over to the church for the past year and three months because of government intervention,” the church said in its statement. “For the past year, our church has not had a settled meeting place.”

Beginning as a house church in 1993, the Shouwang Church has been evicted from several rented locations. It also met outside after its last displacement in 2009. The congregation does not believe its calling is to split up into smaller units.

“For the past several years the church has been given a vision from God to be ‘the city on a hill,’” the source said. “Especially since 2009, when they officially began the church building purchase, they have been trying to become a more officially established status. At this point, they feel that they have not completed the journey in obedience to God.”

The number of Protestant house church Christians is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute. Yu and others have concluded that house churches are a positive influence on society, but the government is wary of such influence.

Yu estimated another 18 to 30 million people attend government-approved churches – potentially putting the number of Christians higher than that of Communist Party members, which number around 74 million.

The government-commissioned study by Yu and associates suggested that officials should seek to integrate house churches and no longer regard them as enemies of the state. The study employed a combination of interviews, field surveys and policy reviews to gather information on house churches in several provinces from October 2007 to November 2008.

Yu’s team found that most house or “family” churches fit into one of three broad categories: traditional house churches, open house churches or urban emerging churches. Traditional house churches were generally smaller, family-based churches, meeting in relative secrecy. Though not a Christian himself, Yu attended some of these meetings and noted that the focus was not on democracy or human rights but rather on spiritual life and community.

The “open” house churches were less secretive and had more members, sometimes advertising their services and holding public gatherings, he found. Urban emerging churches functioned openly but independently of TSPM churches. In some provinces such as Wenzhou, these churches had constructed their own buildings and operated without interference from local officials.

While some house churches actively seek registration with authorities to avoid arrests and harassment, they would like the option of registering outside the government-approved TSPM structure, as they disagree with TSPM beliefs and controls. Many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members or fear that it will control sermon content.

Report from Compass Direct News

Algerian Christians to Appeal Conviction for Worshipping

Church leaders fear verdict could mean the end of the country’s Protestant churches.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — Four Christian men in Algeria will appeal a court decision to hand them suspended prison sentences for worshiping without a permit, saying the verdict could have repercussions for all the country’s churches.

The correctional court of Larbaa Nath Irathen, about 27 kilometers (17 miles) from the capital of Tizi Ouzou Province, gave two-month suspended prison sentences to four Christian leaders of a small Protestant church on Sunday (Dec. 12).

The pastor of the church, Mahmoud Yahou, was also charged with hosting a foreigner without official permission. The court gave him a three-month suspended sentence and a fine of 10,000 Algerian dinars (US$130), reported French TV station France 24 on its Web site. The prosecutor had asked for one-year prison sentences for each defendant.

Although the suspended sentences mean the four Christians will not serve prison time, Yahou told Compass that he and the three other men plan to appeal the verdict because the outcome of their case could affect all Protestant churches of the country, none of which have official permission to operate.

“If they close us, they can close all the gatherings and churches that exist in Algeria,” Yahou said. “They could all be closed.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03, which was established in 2006. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance. No churches have been closed down since then.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, no churches or Christian groups have received governmental approval to operate, and the government has not established administrative means to implement the ordinance, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Though none of the churches have closed since 2008, their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). The EPA, however, is also trying to gain official recognition.  

“Actually, this law of 2006 has come to light: people are condemned as criminals for the simple act of thinking and believing different,” the president of the EPA, Mustapha Krim, told Compass. “If we accept this [verdict], it means we are condemned to close our churches one after the other.”

Krim confirmed that based on Ordinance 06-03, none of the churches have actual authorization to operate, nor can Christians speak about their faith to other Algerians.

“If they condemn our four brothers, they need to condemn the others,” he said.

In a sign of solidarity towards the men and to demand the abolition of Ordinance 06-03, dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse on the first hearing of the case on Sept. 26. Demonstrators carried banners that read: “Places of worship for everyone,” “Freedom of religion = freedom of conscience,” and “Abolition of the Law of 06-03-2006.”

Attending the re-opening of a Catholic church in Algeria’s capital on Monday (Dec. 13), Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdellah Ghlamallah told reporters, “Religious freedom in Algeria is a reality,” reported Reuters.

The Algerian Constitution gives the right to all citizens to practice their faith, although it declares Islam the state religion and prohibits institutions from behavior incompatible with Islamic morality.

Yahou said the judge did not pass a rightful judgment and thus had no real sense of justice.

“I think he has no conscience,” Yahou said. “We can’t be persecuted for nothing. He didn’t judge on the law and constitution, he judged on Islam. If he had read what is in the constitution, he wouldn’t have made this decision.”

The small church of Larbaa Nath Irathen, consisting only of a few families, had problems as early as 2008, when a group of Islamic radicals launched a petition against the church without success.  

Yahou told Compass that he knew very well the people in the village who brought charges against them, saying that they have tried to intimidate the church for the past few months in an effort to close it down.

“These are Islamists, and I know them in this village,” Yahou said.

Tizi Ouzou is part of Kabylie region, an area of Algeria where the country’s Protestant church has grown with relative freedom in recent years.

There are around 64 Protestant churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as numerous house groups, according to church leaders. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.

In October a court in the region acquitted two Christian men of eating during Ramadan in spite of a prosecutor’s demand that they be punished for “insulting Islam.”

In January Muslim neighbors ransacked and set on fire a church in Tizi Ouzou. In September a court in Tizi Ouzou ordered a local church to stop construction on an extension to its building and to tear it down.

Unofficial estimates of the number of Christian and Jewish citizens vary between 12,000 and 50,000, according to the state department’s report.

Report from Compass Direct News

Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election

Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.


Vague Religious Freedom

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News

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

Declaration of Christian Conscience

A Declaration of Christian Conscience has been launched in the United Kingdom in a bid to defend the right of Christians to hold to their beliefs and to act according to their Christian conscience.

For more on this story see:

American arrested in Britain for declaring homosexuality is sin

An American street preacher has been arrested and fined £1000 in Glasgow for telling passersby, in answer to a direct question, that homosexual activity is a sin. Shawn Holes was kept in jail overnight on March 18, and in the morning pled guilty to charges that he had made “homophobic remarks…aggravated by religious prejudice,” reports Hilary White,

Holes, a 47 year-old former wedding photographer from Lake Placid, New York, was in Glasgow as part of a preaching tour of Britain with a group of British and American colleagues. He said, “I was talking generally about Christianity and sin.”

“I only talked about these other issues because I was specifically asked. There were homosexuals listening – around six or eight – who were kissing each other and cuddling, and asking ‘What do you think of this?’” A group of homosexuals approached police with a complaint. Holes later said that the situation seemed like a “set-up by gay campaigners.”

“When asked directly about homosexuality, I told them homosexuals risked the wrath of God unless they accepted Christ.”

The charge, under the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003, has angered freedom of speech advocates in Britain and has even been criticized by homosexualist campaigner Peter Tatchell who called the £1,000 “totally disproportionate.” Local Christians supporting the preaching ministry took up a collection and paid the fine.

Tatchell told the Daily Mail, “The price of freedom of speech is that we sometimes have to put up with opinions that are objectionable and offensive. Just as people should have the right to criticize religion, people of faith should have the right to criticize homosexuality. Only incitements to violence should be illegal.”

Holes relates that at the same time he had been asked for his views on Islam and had said he believed there is only one true Christian God and that the Prophet Mohammed is a “sinner like the rest of us.”

He said that two men who were listening spoke to police officers who approached him and said, “These people say you said homos are going to Hell.”

“I told them I would never say that, because I don’t use the term homo. But I was arrested.”

Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Glasgow told the Scotsman, “We supported [hate crime] legislation but it is very difficult to see how this man can be charged for expressing a religious conviction.

“The facts of this case show his statement was clearly his religious belief. Yes, it is strong language he has used, but it is obviously a religious conviction and not a form of discrimination.”

Gordon Macdonald, of Christian Action Research and Education for Scotland, said, “This is a concerning case. I will be writing to Chief Constable Stephen House of Strathclyde Police for clarification of the guidance given to police officers in these situations.”

In related news, a district judge has thrown out the case against another street preacher, Paul Shaw, who was arrested on February 19 in Colchester over comments he made about homosexual activity. Shaw, who did not plead guilty, said, “I’ve preached regularly for about three or four years without incident.

“In four years, I’ve only dealt with homosexuality about twice.” Shaw told the judge that he was obliged to act according to his conscience and that homosexuality was a significant issue in Britain today. The case was dismissed through lack of evidence and written testimony from complainants.

Shaw said, “My reasons were twofold. Firstly, there is a consequence for the country and society if society does not appreciate the difference between right and wrong, particularly noticeable by homosexuality.

“As a nation, we are coming under God’s judgment not very far away in the future and there will be terrible consequences for this if it is not made unlawful again. Secondly, on a personal level, as with all other sins, it needs to be repented of in order to enter the Kingdom of God.”

District Judge David Cooper told Shaw, “There are other sorts of ‘sins’. Do you think you could concentrate on those for a bit?”

Meanwhile, a new study conducted on behalf of religious think-tank Theos has shown that nearly 1/3 of British people think that Christians are being marginalized and religious freedom has been restricted. The report’s author Professor Roger Trigg, wrote, “A free society should never be in the business of muzzling religious voices, let alone in the name of democracy or feigned neutrality.”

“We also betray our heritage and make our present position precarious if we value freedom, but think that the Christian principles which have inspired the commitment of many to democratic ideals are somehow dispensable,” Professor Trigg said.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Pro-Democracy Advocate Released from Prison

Her new Christian faith deepens; authorities allow evangelist Luis Palau to address pastors.

HO CHI MINH CITY, March 30 (CDN) — A Protestant prisoner of conscience who had called for democratic freedoms in Vietnam was released earlier this month after serving a three-year sentence for “propagandizing to destroy the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

Attorney Le Thi Cong Nhan’s sentence had been reduced by one year after an international outcry over her sentencing. She was released on March 6. Remaining in prison for another year is her colleague, Christian lawyer Nguyen Van Dai.

The 31-year-old Cong Nhan had also supported a labor union that sought to be independent. Now serving an additional three-year house arrest sentence, Cong Nhan said in a surprisingly frank interview with Voice of America’s Vietnamese language broadcast on March 9 that she has no intention of giving up her struggle for a just and free Vietnam and accepts that there may be a further price to pay.

Cong Nhan, arrested in March 2007, received a Vietnamese Bible from a visiting delegation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – with official permission from Vietnam’s minister of Public Security – early in her incarceration, but she had to struggle constantly to retain it. Twice she went on a hunger strike when authorities took the Bible away from her.

She had become a Christian shortly before her arrest, and she told Voice of America that while in prison she was able to read the entire Bible.

“In prison the Lord became my closest friend, my teacher, and the one who carried my burdens with me,” she said. “When I was released from prison, I received many words of praise and of love and respect – I became a bit worried about this, as I do not consider myself worthy of such. I believe I must live an even better and more worthy life.”

Her prison experience has confirmed her calling and faith, she said.

“As a direct result of my prison experience, I am more convinced than ever that the path that I have chosen is the right one,” Cong Nhan said. “Before prison I was just like a thin arrow, but now I have become a strong fort.”

Luis Palau Allowed to Speak

While Christians in several parts of Vietnam are still subject to abuse from local officials, the country’s national authorities have continued to allow high-profile Christian events. On March 17, renowned U.S. evangelist Luis Palau was allowed to address more than 400 pastors in a day-long event at the New World Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Palau, who had arrived in Hanoi with his entourage on March 13, had addressed nearly 200 Hanoi area pastors at an evening event at the Hanoi Hilton on March 14. The two events were streamed live on, a popular website that reports on Protestant news in Vietnam. Hundreds of Vietnamese in Vietnam and abroad were estimated to have watched the presentations.

The events were deemed significant, if not historic, by Vietnam’s Christian leaders. Very rarely is a prominent foreign Protestant leader allowed to address Vietnamese leaders, especially one from the United States.

The events were significant also in that they brought together leaders from virtually all segments of Vietnam’s fractured and sometimes conflicted Protestant groups, Christian leaders said. The gatherings included leaders of open churches and house churches, registered and unregistered churches, and urban and even ethnic minority groups from Vietnam’s remote mountainous regions.

Two representatives of a Mennonite church headed by activist pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, however, were turned away by police. 

Palau and Mike McIntosh, pastor of San Diego mega-church Horizon Christian Fellowship, strongly challenged the Vietnamese church leaders to strive for unity. The assembled pastors were challenged to put aside past conflicts and suspicions for the sake of the Kingdom of God in Vietnam, with Palau saying that unity was a requirement for God’s blessing on their churches and nation.

Some Vietnamese leaders responded by expressing remorse for their divisions and committed to start working toward reconciliation.

Organizers and participants said they hope such short events will lead to larger gains. Though the Luis Palau Association had originally planned for a two-day event for 2,000 pastors, most agreed this was an unprecedented first step toward a bigger goal. With an invitation from all segments of the Protestant community in Vietnam in hand, the Luis Palau Association is prepared to help organize evangelistic festivals in Vietnam in 2011, the centenary of Protestantism in Vietnam.

“There is still a long way to go, but we are seeing miracles piling up,” said one senior Vietnamese leader. “It could happen!”

One prominent overseas Vietnamese leader wondered if Palau’s visit to Vietnam could be compared to Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow during the Soviet Communist era.

Also sharing testimonies during the March 17 event were Rick Colsen, a top Intel executive, and John Dalton, Secretary of the Navy under President Clinton.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Evangelical Christians at risk from Russian government

Evangelical Christians may be at risk in Russia as Orthodoxy gains more and more governmental favor, reports MNN.

The Liberty of Conscience Institute recently discovered that the Russian government is cozying up to the Russian Orthodox Church in ways that may inhibit religious freedoms. Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association says there is reason to be concerned.

"Russia’s president [has] taken the initiative to permanently assign orthodox priest army units, and they’re also wanting to introduce religious education classes at state schools."

The more power the Orthodox Church gains, the more risk there will be to the religious freedoms of all minority religions, no less evangelical Christianity. Griffith says history proves that evangelical Christians may well be targeted if such legislation is passed. A sizeable evangelical movement would well be viewed as an encroachment on Orthodox territory, and would consequently not be taken lightly.

If this is the case, evangelical movement could be very much hindered in Russia. As it now stands, some evangelical churches experience virtually no opposition at all from the government, while others experience a great deal. If a national legislation should pass, opposition will likely extend to every evangelical church.

"If this becomes a policy of the national government to freeze out evangelicals, obviously that’s going to have a pretty big impact not only on freedom of worship," cautions Griffith, "but also on the proclamation of the Gospel."

Fortunately, in order for any such government-orthodox partnership to be enforced via the military and education, it would have to pass through a significant number of hoops. As it stands, this sort of breach on the separation of church and state goes directly against the Russian constitution, not to mention Western ideals.

"The West is concerned with human rights and the freedom of conscience and the freedom of worship," notes Griffith. "And officially under the constitution, there’s supposed to be freedom of religion and freedom of worship in Russia. So any moves to do this certainly fly in the face of what the Russian constitution would say."

Unfortunately, many Russians consider Orthodoxy as a given. Historically, the Orthodox Church has, more often than not, been considered an arm of the Russian government. Pray that the obvious infringement of government policy on the basis of the constitution would be enough to stop Orthodox alliances with the Russian government from being nationally enforced.

Slavic Gospel Association helps equip churches in Russia with training and materials to prepare them for every situation as evangelicals.

Report from the Christian Telegraph