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

Morocco Begins Large-Scale Expulsion of Foreign Christians

Ongoing purge launched nationwide to stop ‘proselytization.’

ISTANBUL, March 12 (CDN) — Moroccan authorities deported more than 40 foreign Christian aid workers this week in an ongoing, nationwide crackdown that included the expulsion of foster parents caring for 33 Moroccan orphans. 

Deportations of foreign Christians continued at press time, with Moroccan authorities expressing their intention to deport specifically U.S. nationals. Sources in Morocco told Compass that the government gave the U.S. Embassy in Rabat a list of 40 citizens to be deported.

The U.S. Embassy in Rabat could not comment on the existence of such a list, but spokesperson David Ranz confirmed that the Moroccan government plans to deport more U.S. citizens for alleged “proselytizing.”

“We have been informed by the Moroccan government that it does intend to expel more American citizens,” said embassy spokesperson David Ranz.

Citing Western diplomats and aid groups, Reuters reported that as many as 70 foreign aid workers had been deported since the beginning of the month, including U.S., Dutch, British and New Zealand citizens.

At the Village of Hope orphanage near Ain Leuh, 50 miles south of Fez, the government on Monday (March 8) expelled 16 staff workers, 10 foster parents and 13 natural-born dependents from the country. The orphanage arranges for orphaned children to live with a set of foster parents rather than in a traditional dormitory setting, according to its website.

Police first came to the orphanage Saturday afternoon (March 6), questioning children and looking for Bibles and evidence of Christian evangelism; by late Sunday night they had told all foster parents and staff that they had to leave on Monday.

New Zealand native Chris Broadbent, a worker at Village of Hope, told Compass that the separation of the foster families and the children under their care was traumatic. As much as they hoped to be re-united, he said, that did not seem likely – officials told them they could visit as tourists in the future, but in reality authorities do not allow re-entry for those who have been expelled.

“At this stage, as much as we want to see the parents get back with their kids, we understand that may be almost impossible,” Broadbent said. “We’re not searching for scalps here, we don’t want to harm Morocco or anything like that, but we want to see the parents re-united with their children.”

Broadbent emphasized that government accusations that they had been proselytizing were unfounded, and that all staff had signed and adhered to a non-proselytizing policy.

“We were a legal institution,” he said. “Right from the start they knew that it was an organization founded by Christians and run by a mixture of Christians and Muslim people working together.”

Authorities told orphanage officials that they were being deported due to proselytizing but gave no evidence or explanation of who, when, where or how that was supposed to have occurred, according to a Village of Hope statement.

The orphanage had been operating for 10 years. Moroccan authorities had never before raised any charges about the care of the children, according to Village of Hope’s website.

In the village of Azrou, about 100 miles east of Rabat, another orphanage called Children’s Haven has been under investigation this week. Although it was still operating at press time, sources said its 20 staff members were prepared for a fate similar to that of Village of Hope, 30 minutes south.

“This action against the Village of Hope was part of a nationwide crackdown against Christians living in Morocco,” read a statement on Village of Hope’s website.

Some Christians in Morocco attribute the change in the country, generally known for its tolerance towards religious minorities, to the appointments of Mohammed Naciri as Minister of Justice and Taieb Cherkaoui as Minister of Interior in January.

Communications Minister Khalid Naciri said the government would be “severe with all those who play with religious values,” reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Local Christians Next?

A Moroccan pastor, his wife and a relative were arrested on Wednesday [March 10] and released on the next day, raising fears among local Christians that the wave of intolerance may spread to the country’s small but growing church of nearly 1,000 believers.

An expert on religious freedom in the Middle East who requested anonymity said that attacks on the church are inevitable even in a Western-looking, modern country like Morocco, as the church grows and becomes more visible.

“Because conversion is a taboo, if the government looks like it is doing nothing in regard to all the foreign missionaries that are coming and ‘corrupting’ the country and its ‘national soul,’ it gives credit to Islamists who could challenge the ‘Islam-ness’ of the Royal Family and the government, and that’s just what Morocco can’t afford,” said the expert.

The clampdown on foreign workers could signal government malaise toward the growing church.

“The more they grow, the more visible they become, the more they’ll attract this reaction,” said the expert. “And that’s why they’ve been so quiet with house groups. It’s just a matter of time.”

Communications Minister Naciri reportedly denied the new, tougher line against non-Muslims was a step backward in terms of religious freedom in Morocco.

“Morocco has always been and remains a land of openness and tolerance,” he told AFP. “The rare cases of expulsion have nothing to do with the practice of Christianity but with acts of proselytism.”

The children have reportedly been placed in a care home.

Contradictory Documents

As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Morocco’s accusations of “proselytization” by foreign aid workers apparently contradict its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Previously the North African country had a history of religious tolerance. Morocco’s constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, contradicting Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.

In its 2009 international religious freedom report, the U.S. Department of State noted that on April 2, 2009, a Moroccan government spokesman asserted that freedom of religion does not include freedom to choose one’s faith.

“The fight against Christian proselytizing in accordance with law cannot be considered among human rights abuses,” the Moroccan government spokesman said, “for it is an action aimed at preventing attempts to undermine the country’s immutable religious values. The freedom of belief does not mean conversion to another religion.”

The crackdown this month appears unprecedented, with only smaller groups previously deported. In March 2009, Moroccan authorities expelled five foreign female Christians for trying to “proselytize” although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians. In November 2009, police raided a Christian meeting in northern Morocco and expelled five foreigners.

Last month a large, military-led team of Moroccan authorities raided a Bible study in a small city southeast of Marrakech, arresting 18 Moroccans and deporting a U.S. citizen.

In a message yesterday to U.S. citizens registered with the embassy, U.S. Ambassador Samuel Kaplan reportedly expressed concern about how the authorities conducted the deportations. Foreign Christians were told their residence permits were cancelled and that they had to leave the country immediately; they had no rights to appeal or challenge the decision.

“We were disheartened and distressed to learn of the recent expulsion by the Moroccan government of a number of foreigners, including numerous Americans, who had been legally residing in Morocco,” Kaplan said in a statement. “Although we expect all American citizens to respect Moroccan law, we hope to see significant improvements in the application of due process in this sort of case.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


As law and order breaks down, Christians come under attack.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, July 30

(Compass Direct News) – Three years after a pro-democracy movement led to the proclamation of Nepal as a secular state, some Christians say they are in greater peril than ever.

They are now being targeted by militant Hindu organizations that blame the church for the abolition of Hinduism as the state religion and the end of monarchy. A little-known, shadowy organization that claimed to be building an army of suicide bombers has achieved notoriety with two brutal attacks on Catholics in two years.

Since May, when the Nepal Defense Army (NDA) – which claims to have links with militant Hindu organizations across the border in India – struck one of Kathmandu valley’s oldest and biggest churches, the group has threatened to drive all Christians from the country. And now a group claiming to be the parent organization of the NDA has warned that on Aug. 10 it will start a “Save the Hindu nation” movement.

Police say Ram Prasad Mainali, the elusive NDA chief, hired a local woman to plant a bomb at the Assumption Church on May 23 during mass. Two women and a schoolgirl were killed in the attack. The NDA also claimed responsibility for killing a Catholic priest, John Prakash Moyalan, in southern Nepal last year.

Though police have issued an alert for his arrest, Mainali continues to evade capture, and it is murmured that he has political connections. Undeterred by the hunt, he continues to threaten the Christian community.

Last month, the Rev. Pius Perumana, a senior Catholic priest, received a phone call.

“The caller said he was in charge of the NDA in Kathmandu valley,” said Perumana of Ishalaya Catholic Church, located in Godavari on the southern rim of the capital. “However, I recognized the voice. It was Ram Prasad Mainali himself.”

Godavari is an important Catholic hub that includes a Catholic pastoral center, a shelter for destitute, HIV-infected women and homeless children, a day care center and a small clinic.

Perumana said he has received at least five threatening calls from the Hindu supremist ordering him to close all Christian organizations and leave Nepal, he said. The NDA leader has also been calling Protestant pastors, demanding money. In districts outside Kathmandu, where security is weak, some pastors are said to have paid up out of fear.

Mainali’s success has spawned at least one copycat extortion attempt.

“At least one pastor in Kathmandu has received an extortion letter,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman of the Assumption Church. “The writer claimed to be the vice-president of a Hindu group, the National Defence Party (NDP), calling it the mother organization of which Mainali’s NDA was the military arm. The pastor was asked to pay 7.5 million Nepalese rupees [US$98,190].”

The letter warned that starting on Aug. 10, the underground organization will start a “Save the Hindu nation” movement.

No Christian Corpses

Until three years ago, Nepal used to be the only Hindu kingdom in the world where Christians faced discrimination by the state, ostracization by society and imprisonment if found guilty of preaching Christ.

Things officially changed in 2006 after a pro-democracy movement led to the ouster of the army-backed regime of Hindu King Gyanendra, and Parliament proclaimed the Himalayan kingdom a secular, federal state.

But three years later, nothing has changed in reality, said the Rev. Nayaran Sharma, bishop of the Protestant Believers’ Church.

“We bought a plot of land in a forest in Gorkha district in western Nepal so that we could have an official graveyard,” Sharma told Compass. “But when the locals heard of it, they made us return the land, saying they did not want corpses in their midst as they would attract evil.”

Even three years after Nepal became secular, Christians have to be buried clandestinely on private property with the danger of graves being dug up, he said.

“Churches have not yet been registered by the government, and so we don’t get state assistance like the Hindu temples and Muslim mosques do,” Sharma said. “Temples are provided free land, electricity and water; the madrassas – the Muslim schools – receive state funding, and the government subsidizes the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.”

Christians make up about 2.5 percent of Nepal’s 25 million population. Nearly 75 percent of the population in Nepal is Hindu.

Christians are said to be both angered and disheartened by the new, 601-member constituent assembly mandated to draft a new constitution by May 2010.

“There’s not one Christian among the 601, though the government had the power to nominate members from unrepresented communities,” Sharma said. “Though Christianity has been in Nepal for almost 350 years, Christians are still like orphans. There is no one to speak for us, and we are discriminated against beyond imagination.”

Soft Targets

Political instability and the subsequent lawlessness and impunity leave Christians vulnerable to violence, as Sanjay Ekka, a Catholic priest from India’s impoverished Jharkhand state, learned on Monday (July 27).

Ekka came to Nepal in 2000 to teach at St. Xavier’s School, a Jesuit-run school in eastern Jhapa district. Five years ago, he was brought to the capital city of Kathmandu to run the Loyola Students’ Home, a hostel for boys from the Tamang community of Nepal, who, like Ekka’s own tribe, the Oraons, are among the poorest, least educated and most oppressed groups in Nepal.

Despite the similarities of the two tribes, the 40-year-old Ekka was subjected to a savage attack on Monday (July 27) by an expelled student that left his left arm severely slashed and deep gashes on his hip.

“It’s another sign of the growing lawlessness in the country,” says the Rev. Lawrence Maniyar, former principal of St. Xavier’s School in Kathmandu valley, which was founded in 1951. “With crimes soaring, Christians are being targeted as they are seen as soft targets.”

Another factor endangering Christians in Nepal is the tension in the nascent republic’s relations with its southern neighbor and largest trading partner, India. As the smaller neighbour, Nepal has lived in fear of being annexed since 1975, when the kingdom of Sikkim decided to abrogate monarchy and become part of India after a controversial referendum.

Tensions worsened in 1989, when India imposed a virtual blockade of Nepal, hitting the fragile economy of the land-locked kingdom. A substantial number of Christian priests in Nepal are from India.

“The heads of three Catholic organizations have been asked to leave Nepal,” said Bishop Anthony Sharma. They are the Rev. Boniface Tigga, principal of St. Xavier’s School in Kathmandu valley, the principal of St. Mary’s Higher Secondary School, identified only as Sister Nancy, and Sister Teresa Mandassery, who heads the Navjyoti Day Care Center for the mentally challenged in Kathmandu. All three are from India.

“Now the animosity is out in the open,” said Maniyar of St Xavier’s in Kathmandu valley. “There has been growing union trouble in St. Xavier’s School. While we were holding talks with the union representatives, they told us to our face, ‘You priests from Kerala [in southern India] think you can run the school the way you want.”

Maniyar said it is useless trying to explain reality to such people.

“We are in Nepal not because we are Indians,” he says. “We are here because we are Jesuits. It is an international organization with an administrative structure of its own, and we have to follow our superiors and go where ever they want us to.”

Report from Compass Direct News