Authorities Move to Stop Protestant Christmas Events

Apparent central government crackdown puts halt to Yuletide celebrations in five areas.

HANOI, Vietnam, December 20 (CDN) — In what appeared to be part of a central government crackdown on Protestant Christianity in Vietnam, hundreds of Christians from 10 northern provinces were locked out of a Christmas celebration that was supposed to take place here yesterday.

The throngs who arrived at the National Convention Center (NCC) in the Tu Kiem district of Hanoi for the Christmas event found the doors locked and a phalanx of police trying to send them away, sources said. Deeply disappointed, some of the Christians began singing and praying in the square in front to the center, they said.

Police moved in, striking some Christians with fists and night sticks in the melee that followed. A number of video clips of the action were posted online by Monday morning (Dec. 20), Hanoi time. Christian leaders worked to calm the disappointed crowd, which eventually left, but not before at least six people – including the Rev. Nguyen Huu Bao, the scheduled speaker at the event – were arrested. They had not been released at press time.

Similar incidents occurred on Christmas Sunday (Dec. 19) in at least four other places throughout the country.

Unregistered house churches under the umbrella of the Hanoi Christian Fellowship rented the auditorium in the name of one of their members. A copy of the six-page contract obtained by Compass says the event was to be a reunion of Vietnamese who had worked in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Many of northern Vietnam’s house church leaders became Christians during their time there.

While it was understood that this was to be a Christmas event, the managers of the state-owned facility did not want to put this in writing. Organizers had hoped that some 4,000 people would come.

The contract called for at least five days’ written notice before the event if either side wanted to terminate the contract. According to one source, the NCC informed event organizers on Dec. 15, four days before the event, that the contract was voided but gave no reasons as the contract required. The organizers, having completed major preparations and distributed several thousand invitations, considered this a breach of contract and decided to try to go ahead.

When the first Christians arrived Sunday afternoon, they found the doors of the NCC locked. According to a source at the scene, a sign indicated a wedding was taking place. When more than 1,000 people had arrived, some decided to sing and pray in the square in front of the NCC. Police called for reinforcements.

One witness said “possibly hundreds” of uniformed and plainclothes personnel came to try to disperse the growing crowd. Reports from the scene and video clips on the Web show pushing and shoving, with some Christian leaders trying desperately to calm the agitated crowd. Some witnesses said officials punched some Christians, and others were struck hard with night sticks. Late police reinforcements carried electric cattle prods, according to one source. In one clip, people can be seen comforting an 86-year-old woman who was knocked down.

Gradually the Christians dispersed. For many Christians who tried to come – some from great distances and at great personal expense – this would have marked the first time they had ever worshipped in a large gathering.

Sources in Vietnam told Compass that similar stoppages also took place yesterday (Dec. 19) in Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and Quang Nam provinces, and in the city of Danang in central Vietnam.

In Thanh Hoa province, Christians of various house church denominations planned a joint celebration yesterday at the home of a woman identified only as Tuyet in Dong Phu commune. Pastor Ho Van Thom sent an appeal to the church worldwide asking for the prayers. He arrived at the scene to find some Christians had been beaten and wounded by police intent on preventing their Christmas worship.

In Danang city in central Vietnam, the Rev. Ho Tan Khoa, superintendent of the unregistered United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam, was invited to preach at a house church Christmas celebration yesterday. Pastor Khoa reported that a distraught church leader told him authorities had come that morning and, without a warrant, carted off the chairs, the pulpit and the sound system. They also tore down the Christmas decorations including a backdrop painstakingly decorated by church members, he said.

In Ho Chi Minh City, house churches have received permission for a public Christmas celebration both from authorities of the central government in Hanoi and of Ho Chi Minh City for an event on Dec. 26.  But church leaders say that potential venue owners, obviously under threat, will not dare rent to them.

Even those who closely follow Protestant church developments in Vietnam were somewhat surprised at the severity of the crackdown. One well-respected overseas Vietnam leader observed that it is now clear that this was a coordinated, well-planned and executed crackdown involving top Communist Party and government officials.

He noted that sometimes officials in remote areas of the country are excused when they persecute Christians on the grounds they do not yet know the new, more enlightened religion policies of the central government.

“In this case,” he said, “the strong actions against Christians are taking place in Vietnam’s three largest cities. They can’t use that excuse.”

Another observer said that authorities likely became alarmed at the size and attraction of the Christmas events in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi last Christmas. The events in those two cities attracted more than 50,000 people. They were organized by unregistered house churches that somehow obtained permission in spite of prohibitions of such events by Vietnam’s Decree 22, which governs religion.

One key church leader in Vietnam informed Compass that Directive No. 75, a secret Ministry of Interior document dated Oct. 15, ordered the crackdown on unregistered groups.

Unregistered groups are caught in limbo. Denominations with a history before the 1975 communist takeover of Vietnam have now been registered, but many groups that began in the 1980s and later have tried but failed to register their congregations as provided by Vietnam’s regulations. Their requests have mostly been ignored or denied, leaving them vulnerable to capricious repression.

As Christmas Day draws near, it appears the 400,000 or so Protestants that belong to unregistered churches will be denied celebrating together.

Report from Compass Direct News

Recent Incidents of Persecution

Punjab, India, December 1 (CDN) — Hindu extremists on Nov. 14 beat a Christian in Moti Nagar, Ludhiana, threatening to harm him and his family if they attended Sunday worship. A source told Compass that a Hindu identified only as Munna had argued with a Christian identified only as Bindeshwar, insulting him for being a Christian, and beat him on Nov. 7. Munna then returned with a mob of about 50 Hindu extremists on Nov. 14. Armed with clubs and swords, they dragged Bindeshwar out of his house and severely beat him, claiming that Christians had offered money to Munna to convert. Local Christian leaders reported the matter to the police at Focal Point police station. Officers arrested three Hindu extremists, but under pressure from local Bharatiya Janata Party leaders released them without registering a First Information Report. Police brokered an agreement between the parties on Nov. 18 and vowed they would not allow further attacks on Christians.

Tripura – Hindu extremists attacked a prayer conference on Nov. 6 in Burburi, threatening Christians if they opened their mouths. A local evangelist known only as Hmunsiamliana told Compass that area Christian leaders organized a prayer conference on Nov. 5-7, but extremists ordered the participants not to open their mouth or make any sound. Christian leaders reported the threat to police, and the participants proceeded to pray aloud. On the nights of Nov. 6 and 7, a huge mob of Hindu extremists pelted the Christians with stones, but the participants continued praying. The meeting ended on the evening of Nov. 7 under police protection.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) disrupted a Christian youth gathering in Raipur on Nov. 6 and accused organizers of forcible conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Vision India had organized the Central India Youth Festival with about 900 in attendance when the extremists stormed in at about 4:30 p.m. and began questioning leaders. The Christian and VHP leaders then held a meeting in the presence of police, with the Christian leaders explaining that it was a normal youth meeting with no forceful conversion taking place. Nevertheless, officers and VHP leaders proceeded to observe the gathering and proceedings, and the Christians were made to submit a list of participants. In this tense atmosphere, the meeting concluded at 10 p.m. under heavy police protection.

Madhya Pradesh – On Oct. 31 in Neemuch, Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal barged into a worship meeting shouting Hindu slogans and accused those present of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that about 40 extremists rushed into the church building at about 10 a.m. shouting “Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram].” The Rev. K. Abraham, who was leading the service, pleaded with them to come back later, but the invaders remained and continued shouting. After the service ended, the extremists rushed Abraham and accused the church of paying money to people to convert, as published in newspaper Pupils Samachar. The Christians said the newspaper published the false news because Abraham, principal of United Alpha English School, refused to advertise in it, according to EFI. The extremists grabbed a woman in the congregation who had a bindi (dot) on her forehead, claimed that she had been lured to Christianity and asked her why she was attending the service, according to EFI. “Where were you people when I was demon-possessed?” the woman replied, according to EFI. “You didn’t come to help me, but when I came to the church in God’s presence, these people prayed for me and helped me to get deliverance.”

Karnataka – Police on Oct. 29 detained Christians after Hindu extremists registered a false complaint of forced conversion in Kalammnagar village, Uttara Kannada. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at around 8:15 p.m. police accompanied extremists belonging to the Bajrang Dal, who along with members of the media stormed the Blessing Youth Mission Church during a worship service for senior citizens. They dragged out Ayesha Nareth, Hanumanta Unikal,Viru Basha Doddamani, Narayana Unikkal and Pastor Subash Deshrath Nalude, forced them into a police jeep and took them to the Yellapur police station. After interrogation for nearly six hours, the Christians were released without being charged.

Orissa – Hindu extremists refused to allow the burial of a 3-year-old Dalit Christian who died in Jinduguda, Malkangiri. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that the daughter of unidentified Christian tribal people fell ill and was taken to a nearby health center on Oct. 27. The doctor advised the parents to take the child to a nearby hospital, and the girl developed complications and died there. When the parents brought the body of the girl back to their village, according to AICC, Hindus refused to allow them to bury her with a Christian ritual. There are only 15 Christian families in the predominantly Hindu village. With the intervention of local Christian leaders, police allowed the burial of the body in a Christian cemetery.

Karnataka – On Oct. 6 in Beridigere, Davanagere, a Christian family that converted from Hinduism was assaulted because of their faith in Christ. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the attack appeared to have been orchestrated to appear as if the family provoked it. An elderly woman, Gauri Bai, went to the house of the Christian family and picked a quarrel with them. Bai started shouting and screaming for help, and suddenly about 20 Hindu extremists stormed in and began beating the Christians. They dragged Ramesh Naik out to the street, tied him to a pole, beat him and poured liquor into his mouth and onto his body. His sister, Laititha Naik, managed to escape and called her mother. Later that day, at about 8:30 p.m., the extremists pelted their house with stones, and then about 70 people broke in and began striking them with sickles, stones and clubs. Two brothers, Ramesh Naik and Santhosh Naik, managed to escape with their mother in the darkness, but the Hindu extremists took hold of their sister Lalitha and younger brother Suresh and beat them; they began bleeding and lost consciousness. The attackers continued to vandalize the house, damaging the roof and three doors with large boulders. The unconscious victims received treatment for head injuries and numerous cuts at a government hospital. Police from the Haluvagalu police station arrested 15 persons in connection with the assault.

Report from Compass Direct News

Church ministry in Syria treads carefully after shut down

The spiritual climate in Syria is a changing one. While Syria’s Christian minority is generally respected, conversions to Christianity from Islam are rare and sometimes met with opposition, reports MNN.

Voice of the Martyrs reports that evangelizing is legal, but visas are not granted for missionary work. And while there is freedom to worship, any activity that could threaten communal harmony is suspect, making it difficult to spread the Gospel.

Despite the challenges, Reach Global in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) began in 2008. The team working in the area is focused on holistic ministry: meeting physical and emotional needs as well as the spiritual needs of an individual.

They have been working together with churches, national partners, and collaborating with like-minded ministry organizations in order to reach the Syrians with the hope of Christ, and there has been success. A church has been planted.

This June however, the Syrian government closed the doors of that evangelical church. The group is still hoping to meet for worship and Bible study, but they are praying for wisdom and discernment on how to do that and still remain within the law.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

False Charges Filed against 47 Christians in Pakistan

Police try to extract bribe after attacking home; in Rawalpindi, militants attack chapel.

VEHARI, Pakistan, April 8 (CDN) — Police here filed false charges of alcohol possession against 47 Christians, including women and children, on March 28 in an attempt to intimidate and bribe them, Christian leaders said.

Police broke into and ransacked the home of Shaukat Masih at 10:15 p.m. on Palm Sunday, manhandled his wife Parveen Bibi, and threatened to charge them and 45 other area Christians with alcohol possession if they did not pay a bribe, said attorney Albert Patras. The Christians refused.

Those charged include two children and eight women. Patras said that three of the 37 Christian men, Shaukat Masih, Moula Masih and Shanni Masih, secured pre-arrest bail and thus averted detainment by Dane Wall police in Vehari, in Punjab Province. None of the others named in the First Information Report is being held either.

“Police are not interested in their arrest, instead they were trying to extort some money from the destitute Christians,” Patras said. “Police thought that Christians, being a soft target, would readily be bribed to save their families, particularly their girls and women.”  

Non-Muslims with a permit are allowed to possess and drink alcohol in Pakistan, while alcohol is forbidden to Muslims in Pakistan. Shaukat Masih has a government permit to keep and drink alcohol, Patras said, thus making the possession charge baseless.

“No longer using just ‘blasphemy’ laws, police and fanatical Muslims have begun to use alcohol laws, Section 3/4 of the Pakistan Penal Code, to persecute the destitute Christians of Pakistan,” Patras said. “Only Christians in Pakistan are allowed to keep and drink alcohol, so Pakistani police can apprehend any Christian and then level section 3/4 of PPC against him or her.”

Patras, head of the Society for Empowerment of the People, told Compass that Sub-Inspector Irshaad-ur-Rehman of the Dane Wall police station, along with two other policemen illegally ransacked the house of Shaukat Masih and Sadiq Masih and threatened to file alcohol charges against them if they refused to pay the bribe.

Besides the alcohol accusations, police also filed charges against the Christians for interfering with police, attacking in the form of a mob, theft, confronting police and engaging in terrorist activities, Patras said.

Patras said that Rehman filed the false charges against the Christians only to protect himself and his cohorts against accusations over their attack on the household. Rehman was not immediately available for comment.

Khalid Gill, head of Lahore zone of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and chief organizer of the Christian Liberation Front of Punjab Province, said that police violated the trust of their office.

“Keeping alcohol and drinking is taboo in Islam,” Gill said, “but Christians are issued permits to keep and drink alcohol. Now besides the discriminatory blasphemy laws of Sections 295-A, 295-B and 295-C of the penal code, fanatical Muslims and police have found this new way to harass and extort money from innocent, impoverished Christian families.”

The Rt. Rev. Bishop Naeem Essa condemned the police action, concurring with the other Christian leaders that Muslim extremists and police accustomed to using Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to unjustly jail Christians have found a new means of antagonism.

“Now they have grabbed a new weapon in Section 3/4 of the penal code to financially, socially and legally terrorize the weak Christians of Pakistan,” Essa said.

Armed Attack on Chapel

In another Easter week incident, in Rawalpindi law enforcement agents secured the liberty of Christians held hostage by several armed Muslim militants, including at least five burqa-clad women, who attacked a church building after a Good Friday (April 2) service.

APMA’s Gill said the assailants armed with automatic rifles and pistols desecrated Gordon College Chapel of Robinson Community Development Ministries (RCDM) Church and ripped apart books, including the Bible. The assailants also entered nearby residences and reprimanded adults and children for their faith in Christ, besides looting many of the homes, Gill said.

Eyewitnesses said that while two Christians, Shaban Gill and Imran Nazir, were scaling the wall of their property to enter their home, the Muslim militants opened fire on them. Gill managed to escape but Nazir was hit, and the militants held his wife and two daughters, one 4 years old and the other 18 months, at gunpoint.

A heavy contingent of police from City Police Station Raja Bazaar arrived at the scene, and with the help of local Christians broke down doors and gates to make their way into the property and its adjoining residential area. Police secured the liberty of all three Christian hostages and arrested at least 10 suspects. 

Nine of the suspects have been identified as Mushtaq Ahmed, Amjad Zaman Cheema, Dildar Hussein, Muhammad Anwer and Saqib Ali, along with the burqa-clad Nusrat Bibi, Shahnaz Bibi, Irum Bibi and Fatima Bibi.

Police were initially reluctant to file charges against the arrested Muslims but eventually did so under the pressure from Christian rights activists Robinson Asghar, head of RCDM. 

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Islamic Extremists in Somalia Kill Church Leader, Torch Home

Al Shabaab militants execute pastor; government-aligned Islamists burn house containing Bible.

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 24 (CDN) — Islamic militants in Somalia tracked down an underground church leader who had previously escaped a kidnapping attempt and killed him last week, Christian sources said.

Islamic extremist al Shabaab rebels shot Madobe Abdi to death on March 15 at 9:30 a.m. in Mahaday village, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Johwar. He had escaped an al Shabaab attempt to kidnap him on March 2.

Abdi’s death adds to a growing number of Christians murdered by Islamic militants, but his was distinctive in that he was not a convert from Islam. An orphan, Abdi was raised as a Christian.

Sources said the militants prohibited his body from being buried, ordering that it be left to dogs as an example to other Christians. Al shabaab, which is fighting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed, has embarked on a campaign to rid the country of all non-Muslims.

“The al Shabaab say, ‘Leaving Abdi’s body outside is a warning to all that a murtid [infidel] is a disgrace to Muslims,’ hence creating fear to whoever would like to choose Christianity,” said a source.

In 2009 Islamic militants in Somalia sought out and killed at least 15 Christians, including women and children. This year, on Jan. 1 Islamic extremists shot an underground church leader to death. Having learned that he had left Islam to become a Christian, al Shabaab members murdered 41-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Ali after he had left his home in Hodan, on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

House Burning

The transitional government in Mogadishu fighting to retain control of the country treats Christians little better than the al Shabaab extremists do. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia (Islamic law) that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

Ahmed was formerly the leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamist array of sharia judges and militants that vied for power after losing control of much of southern Somalia at the end of 2006. A contingent of the ICU reached a power-sharing agreement with the TFG in January 2009 that resulted in the election of Ahmed as president.

The ICU still exists under the auspices of Ahmed’s TFG, and alleged members of the ICU last month set fire to the house of an underground church member they suspected of having left Islam. The gutted house is located on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

Having learned that there was a Bible and Christian pamphlets inside, the angry militants stormed the house in Hamarwien district of Mogadishu on Feb. 17 at 1:15 p.m. as a warning to those who dare possess any Christian literature, sources said.

“Since there is no law and order in this country, there is no one we can turn to for protection,” said the owner of the house, who requested anonymity and has relocated to another city. “But we know that we’re covered with the blood of Jesus Christ.”

The assailants looted the home before setting it afire. Area residents tried to extinguish the blaze, which left the house uninhabitable.

“I saw smoke coming out of the house, then I ran outside and I saw two men coming out of the house with a bucket of gasoline,” said a neighbor who sought anonymity. “One of the men was shouting, ‘Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar [God is Greater],’ then they entered a waiting car and drove off.”

An eyewitness told Compass that after the looting, the ICU extremists belonging to the TFG locked the doors before setting it on fire. At the time of the attack, there was one New King James Version of the Bible, along with some copies of Christian pamphlets that had been printed off of the Internet, according to sources.

They said they did not know who leaked information about the existence of Christian literature in the house.

“There were Christian books in the house at the time of the looting and arson attack,” said one church leader.

Islamic militants have displayed an unusual brutality in hunting down suspected converts to Christianity, with leaders of the underground church movement being executed as a means of discouraging others from joining the growing church. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

Egyptian Court Refuses to Return Passport to Christian

Convert from Islam tried to leave country to save his life.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — An Egyptian court last week refused to return the passport of a convert from Islam who tried to leave Egypt to save his life, the Christian said on Friday (March 12).

On Tuesday (March 9) the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return the passport of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary. El-Gohary said he was devastated by the decision, which essentially guarantees him several more months of living in fear.

“I am very, very disappointed and very unhappy about what happened,” he said, “because I am being threatened – my life is being threatened, my daughter’s life is being threatened very frequently, and I don’t feel safe at all in Egypt.”

Nabil Ghobreyal, El-Gohary’s attorney, told Compass the government declined to give the court any reason for its actions.

“There was no response as to why his passport was taken,” Ghobreyal said.

On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized El-Gohary’s passport. El-Gohary, 57, also known as Peter Athanasius, was trying to leave the country to visit China. Eventually he intended to travel to the United States. At the time, El-Gohary was told only that his travel had been barred by “higher authority.”

El-Gohary, who converted to Christianity from Islam more than 30 years ago, gained notoriety in Egypt in February 2009, when he filed a court application to have the religion on his identification card changed from Muslim to Christian. El-Gohary’s action caused widespread uproar among conservative Muslims in Egypt. He was branded an “apostate” and multiple fatwas, or religious edicts were issued against him. In accordance with some interpretations of the Quran, some Muslims believe El-Gohary should be killed for leaving Islam.

Since filing his application, El-Gohary has lived in fear and has been in hiding with his 15-year-old daughter. Every month, he said, they move from apartment to apartment. He is unable to work, and his daughter, also a Christian, is unable to attend school.

Their days are filled with anxiety, fear and boredom.

“We are very fearful,” El-Gohary said. “We are hiding between four walls all day long.”

El-Gohary went through extraordinary efforts to get the documentation the court demanded for him to officially change his religion, including getting a certificate of conversion from a Coptic Christian religious group. The certificate, which was the first time a Christian church in Egypt recognized a convert from Islam, also caused an uproar.

But ultimately, in June the court denied his application. He was the second person in Egypt to apply to have his religion officially changed from Islam to Christianity. The other applicant was denied as well. El-Gohary has not exhausted his appeals and may file legal proceedings with an international legal body. He has another hearing with the administrative court on June 29.

“I don’t understand what I have done wrong,” El-Gohary said. “I went though the normal legal channels. I thought I was an Egyptian citizen and I would be treated as such by the Egyptian law. I went through the front doors of the legal system, not the back doors, and for that I am being threatened, chased, and I live in continuous fear.”

The National Constitution of Egypt guarantees freedom of religion unless it contradicts set practices in sharia, or Islamic law. While it is easy to change one’s religious identity from Christian to Muslim, it is impossible to do the opposite.

El-Gohary’s case was mentioned by name in a human rights report issued Thursday (March 11) by the U.S. Department of State. El-Gohary said he was pleased that his case was in the report. He said he believes it is his duty to open new doors for his fellow converts in Egypt.

“This is something I have to do,” he said. “It is a duty. I have become a symbol for Christians in Egypt.”

El-Gohary said he hopes U.S. President Barack Obama, other world leaders and international groups will pressure the Egyptian government to allow him to leave the country.

In spite of his ordeal, El-Gohary said faith is still strong and that he doesn’t regret becoming a Christian.

“I don’t regret it at all,” he continued, excitedly. “This is the narrow road that Christians have to go through and suffer to reach eternal life. I have no regrets whatsoever. We are very grateful to know Christ, and we know He’s the way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Why Bhutan’s Royalists Fear Christianity

Social, political factors behind country’s reluctance to allow Christianity to grow

THIMPHU, Bhutan, February 1 (CDN) — Bars, pubs and discos have become legal in Bhutan – a cause of concern for the older generation – but construction of worship buildings other than Buddhist or Hindu temples is still prohibited.

The prohibition remains in force even though Christians abide by Bhutan’s codes of conduct, speaking the Dzongkha language as well as the Nepali language at church gatherings, and wearing the national dress.

The National Assembly of Bhutan banned the practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions through edicts in 1969 and in 1979. But Christians do meet for Sunday worship, with attendance of more than 100 Christians in an underground church not unusual.

Why are Christians seen as a greater threat to the culture of the nation than the “democracy disco culture,” as one government official described the emerging subculture among the Bhutanese youth? It is believed that Christianity will create religious tensions in the country.

“There are reasons why Christianity is not being tolerated in the country,” said a former high government official who requested anonymity. “Look at the communal tensions in India and Nepal. Christianity can divide the Bhutanese society as well.”

He mentioned two incidents that appeared in the Bhutanese press last year, one in which 13 Christians allegedly hanged a woman they had accused of being a witch, and a suicide by a Hindu man who reportedly left a note saying his Christian wife and children were pressuring him to convert.

Christians here said these were isolated incidents that they strongly condemned.

“A majority of believers in Bhutan are not educated and are from lower economic backgrounds,” said the pastor of an underground church. “When open preaching is not allowed, this is what happens.”

Sound Christian teaching remains lacking, he said. There is a tremendous need for good Christian teaching and general education among the Christians in Bhutan, said the pastor.

“But little can be done given the restrictions we face here.”

Christians are only allowed to pray if someone is sick among their acquaintances, he added.

The government also fears that Christianity could cause societal tensions because of the general misconception that Christians lure others to the faith with money; converts are viewed with suspicion, said a government official on condition of anonymity.

“There should be one religion in one nation,” said the official, adding that religious freedom should be allowed only after educating people.

Threat from Within

Bhutanese officials are no strangers to religious conflict.

“You must also understand that the kind of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan is a minority sect within the two Buddhist divisions,” said the former government official.

A majority of Buddhists in Bhutan practice Vajrayāna Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, and belong to the larger Mahayana sect, one of the two major divisions of the religion along with the Theravada sect.

Theravada Buddhism has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries, including Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mahayana is practiced in a few East Asian countries, including Japan.

Unlike Theravada, which is more individualistic in its motivation, Mahayana Buddhism involves an aspiration to achieve enlightenment not only for one’s own sake, but for the sake of all “sentient” beings.

“There is a perceived threat to the Buddhist sect in Bhutan from the more powerful Theravada division,” said the source, without divulging more about the clash within Buddhism. “In such a scenario, how can you expect the government to willingly open doors to Christianity, which too is a threat?”

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, Christians are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. Around 75 percent of the people practice Buddhism, and roughly 22 percent are Hindus, mostly of Nepali origin.

Monarchy and Buddhism

Religion is so closely linked to the monarchy in Bhutan that one cannot exist without the other.

The national flag of Bhutan, which consists of a white dragon over a yellow and orange background, also has religion in it. While the yellow half represents civil and political powers of the King, the orange signifies monastic traditions of Buddha’s teachings.

The religious link is protected in the new constitution, which was adopted in March 2008. Article 2 notes that the dual powers of religion and politics shall be unified in the person of the king, “who, as a Buddhist, shall be the upholder of the Chhoe-sid,” the traditional dual system of governance characterized by the sharing of power between the religious and political heads of the country.

Given that the king embodies religious and political authority, the common people worship him.

Additionally, Buddhism is woven into the national fabric. Bhutan is the only country in the world that employs a “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) equation to measure its people’s level of happiness, and the GNH assumes that all citizens are Buddhist. Respondents to the GNH survey are asked questions concerning “spiritual activities like meditation and prayers, and consideration of karmic effects in daily life.”

The introduction of democracy in Bhutan did not involve disturbing the religious and cultural status quo. While former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006, brought democracy to Bhutan without any demand for it, people believe his intentions were far from transforming the country into a full democracy.

It is believed that the political turmoil in neighboring Nepal partly influenced King Singye Wangchuck’s decision to make the country, at least on paper, a constitutional monarchy after over 100 years of absolute monarchy. A decade-long civil war led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist – which took more than 12,000 lives – is believed to be behind the abolition of the royal parliamentary system and the adoption of a socialist republic in Nepal. In 2006 the then-king of Nepal, Gyanendra, agreed to relinquish sovereign power to the people.

All sources in Bhutan confirmed that the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008), was still the supreme ruler. Perhaps this is why both the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (Bhutan Peace and Prosperity) Party and the opposition People’s Democratic Party are royalists.

Pictures of kings of Bhutan are found everywhere in the country – in homes, shops, hotels, underground churches and on street walls. Many large posters with the kings’ pictures carrying the inscription “Kings of our Hearts” can be seen along the streets. Even public buses have “Our Kings Forever” painted on them.

“But you cannot expect things to change overnight,” said the former government official. “It’s not wise to allow development without any bridle. Things are improving slowly.

Added an optimistic source, “Freedom in the real sense of the word and in all spheres is bound to come to Bhutan. It’s just a matter of time.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Algerian Muslims Block Christmas Service

Neighborhood residents protest new church building in Kabylie region.

ISTANBUL, December 31 (CDN) — Nearly 50 Muslim members of a community in northern Algeria blocked Christians from holding a Christmas service on Saturday (Dec. 26) to protest a new church building in their neighborhood.

As Algerian Christian converts gathered for their weekly meeting and Christmas celebration that morning, they were confronted by protestors barring the doors of their church building. Tafat Church is located in Tizi-Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital, Algiers. Established five years ago, the church belongs to the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Until recently it met in a small rented building. In November it opened its doors in a new location to accommodate the growing needs of its nearly 350 congregants.

The local residents protesting were reportedly irritated at finding that a church building with many visitors from outside the area had opened near their houses, according to an El Watan report on Sunday (Dec. 27). The daily newspaper highlighted that the residents feared their youth would be lured to the church with promises of money or cell phones.

“This land is the land of Islam! Go pray somewhere else,” some of the protestors said, according to El Watan. Protestors also reportedly threatened to kill the church pastor.

The protestors stayed outside the church until Monday (Dec. 28), and that evening some of them broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers, according to the pastor, Mustafa Krireche. As of yesterday (Dec. 30) the church building’s electricity was cut.

One of Algeria’s Christian leaders, Youssef Ourahmane, said he could not recall another display of such outrage from Algerians against Christians.

“It was shocking, and it was the first time to my knowledge that this happened,” said Ourahmane. “And there weren’t just a few people, but 50. That’s quite a big number … the thing that happened on Saturday was a little unusual for Algeria and for the believers as well.”

A few weeks before the Saturday incident, local residents signed a petition saying they did not want the church to operate near their homes and wanted it to be closed. Local authorities presented it to the church, but Ourahmane said the fellowship, which is legally authorized to exist under the EPA, does not plan to respond to it.

On Saturday church leaders called police, who arrived at the scene and told the Christians to go away so they could talk to the protestors, whom they did not evacuate from the premises, according to local news website The story published on Sunday was entitled, “Islamic tolerance in action at Tizi-Ouzou.”

“In that area where the church is located, I’m sure the people have noticed something happening,” said Ourahmane. “Having hundreds of Christians coming to meet and different activities in the week, this is very difficult for Muslims to see happening there next door, and especially having all these Muslim converts. This is the problem.”

A local Muslim from the neighborhood explained that residents had protested construction of the church building in a residential area, according to El Watan.

“What’s happening over there is a shame and an offense to Muslims,” he told El Watan. “We found an old woman kissing a cross … they could offer money or mobile phones to students to win their sympathies and sign them up. We won’t let them exercise their faith even if they have authorization. There’s a mosque for those who want to pray to God. This is the land of Islam.” 

Behind the Scenes

Ourahmane said he believes that Islamists, and maybe even the government, were behind the protests.

“Maybe this is a new tactic they are trying to use to prevent churches from meeting,” he said. “Instead of coming by force and closing the church, the local police use the Muslim fundamentalists. That’s my analysis, anyhow.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. 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.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to this year’s International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.

“If we have the right to exercise our faith, let them tell us so,” Pastor Krireche told El Watan. “If the authorities want to dissolve our association through legal means, let them do so.”

Recent growth of the church in Algeria is difficult for Muslims to accept, according to Ourahmane, despite public discourse among the nation’s intellectuals advocating for religious freedoms. Unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined range from 12,000 to 40,000, according to the state department report. Local leaders believe the number of Algerian Christians could be as many as 65,000.

Increasing numbers of people who come from Islam are like a stab for the Muslim community, said Ourahmane.

“It’s hard for them to accept that hundreds of Christians gather to worship every week,” he said. “It’s not easy. There are no words to explain it. It’s like a knife and you see someone bleeding … They see the church as a danger to Algerian culture.”

The Algerian government has the responsibility to face up to the changing face of its country and to grant Christians the freedom to meet and worship, said Ourahmane.

“The local authorities and especially the Algerian government need to be challenged in this all the time,” he said. “They have to be challenged: ‘Don’t you recognize the situation here?’ I mean we’re talking of tens of thousands of believers, not just a few.”

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

“There are lots of healings and deliverance, and people are experiencing new things in their life,” Ourahmane said of the Algerian churches. “They are finding hope in Christ which they have never experienced before.”

There are half a dozen court cases against churches and Christians. None of these have been resolved, frozen in Algeria’s courts.

False Accusations

In ongoing negative media coverage of Christians, last month Algerian newspaper Echorouk published a story claiming that the former president of the EPA, who was deported in 2008, had returned to Algeria to visit churches, give advice and give them financial aid.

The report stated that the former EPA president, Hugh Johnson, was known for his evangelism and warned readers of his evangelizing “strategies.” 

Yesterday Johnson told Compass by telephone that the report was pure fabrication, and that he has not set foot in Algeria since he was deported.

Johnson’s lawyers are still trying to appeal his case in Algerian courts.

This year church groups stated that the government denied the visa applications of some religious workers, citing the government ban on proselytizing, according to the state department report.

Report from Compass Direct News