The following article reports on the stoning of many girls in Iraq for dressing in western clothes. Over 90 girls have been stoned to death in a month in this disgraceful display of Islamic extremism.
Elsewhere on island off East Africa, Christians prohibited from worshipping at university.
NAIROBI, Kenya, August 19 (CDN) — Christian university students on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, a predominantly Muslim area off the coast of East Africa, have been denied the right to worship, while on another part of the isle a Christian leader has been jailed.
Sources said evangelist Peter Masanja, a resident of Zanzibar’s southeastern town of Paje, was arrested by security agents sometime in early August. Earlier this year Masanja, a member of the Pentecostal Church in Zanzibar, would invite Christians to his house, as he had made part of his land available for church activities. Area Muslims interpreted it as plans to establish another church there, the sources said.
The rumor angered local residents, and they vowed to prohibit any Christian activities, the sources said.
“It was only after her husband failed to return home that Masanja’s wife knew that there was something amiss,” said a source who requested anonymity. “After several days of searching, reports reached the wife that Masanja had been arrested and imprisoned in Kilimani cell.”
Pastors from Tanzania’s Zanzibar Island sought to meet with prison authorities about Masanja’s arrest, but officials informed them that the person in charge of the prison was away on official business, said Bishop Obeid Fabian, chairman of an association of congregations known as the Fraternal Churches.
“We are asking for prayers for him and his family, that he would be released,” Fabian said.
At Zanzibar University, a private school in Tunguu 18 kilometers (12 miles) from Zanzibar Town, Islamic administrators have denied Christian students freedom of worship while retaining that constitutional right for Muslims, said Samson Zuberi, Christian Union students coordinator.
Three Christian Union student leaders have protested to school officials and threatened to go to court over the discrimination, he said. Although freedom of worship among Christians has long been restricted at the university, the decision to ban it completely caused an outcry. The vice-chancellor’s office on Dec. 28, 2009 issued the order forbidding Christian students from conducting their affairs and meetings on the school campus.
Numbering about 100 at a university with more than 2,500 students, the Christian students say they have felt the administration increasingly discriminating against them. There are two mosques at the university, which is sponsored by an Islamic charity, Dar el Uman Charitable Association, registered in Geneva, Switzerland, according to the school’s Web site.
In an April 12 circular, university Dean of Students Mavua H. Mussa warned those defying worship regulations to seek other learning institutions, saying that the ban on religious activities in lecture theaters, halls of residence or anywhere else on campus was absolute.
Students said the ban violates sections 19(1) and 20(1) of the Zanzibar Constitution of 1984, which provide for freedom of association, including religious groups, free of government control. Articles 19(1) (2) and 20(1) of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania of 1977 provide for the same freedom, they said.
Fabian told Compass by telephone that the students will seek counsel from Christian students at universities in Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, Tanzania.
“We have advised that before they take the case to court, the three Christian Union leaders should travel to get counsel from their fellow students at the universities of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, especially the Christian law students, to get the correct interpretation of the Tanzanian constitution on the right of worship,” Fabian said.
He added that the students – Zuberi, regional Christian Union Student Chairman Ronald R. Urassa and Christian Union Student Secretary Neema Alex Langalli – need to raise US$800 each for the travel.
Similarly, the dress code at the university has caused tensions, sources said, as officials have threatened to expel female Christian students if they do not wear a veil and headscarf, or the Buibui and Hijab. University regulations state that, “For a female dressing, the clothes must cover from head to an ankle.”
Some of the lecturers have put female Christian students out of class if they do not wear the required Islamic dress, sources said.
They also noted that during the current Islamic month of Ramadan, a period of fasting by day, life for Christian students becomes difficult as university regulations forbid them to cook for themselves, and all cafeterias on or near university campuses are closed. The location of the school makes it difficult for Christian students to find meals outside the university cafeteria.
Even if they remain off campus, the conditions and practices of landlords discriminate against Christians, the sources said.
In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, churches face numerous challenges. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.
Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.
Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania might dominate them, and tensions have persisted.
Report from Compass Direct News
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
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
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
Daughter unable to attend school, church; acid thrown on her jacket.
CAIRO, Egypt, May 25 (CDN) — From the mosque across the street, words blasting from minaret megaphones reverberate throughout the tiny apartment where Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary is forced to hide. Immediately following afternoon prayers, the Friday sermon is, in part, on how to deal with Christians.
“Do not shake their hands. Do not go into their homes. Do not eat their food,” an imam shouts as El-Gohary, a convert to Christianity from Islam, looks through his window toward the mosque, shakes his head and grimaces.
“I hope one day to live in a place where there are no mosques,” he says. “How many megaphones do they need?”
For nearly two years, El-Gohary and his teenage daughter have been living in hiding because he abandoned Islam and embraced Christianity. During this time he has been beaten and forcibly detained, and his daughter has been attacked. He has had to endure death threats, poverty and crushing boredom.
Asked what gets him through the constant pressure of living on the run, El-Gohary said he wants to show the world how Christians are treated in Egypt.
“My main driving force is I want to prove to people the amount of persecution that Muslim converts and Christians face here, and that the persecution has been going on for 1,400 years,” he said.
When asked the same question, his 16-year-old daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, pushed back tears and said one word.
El-Gohary, 57, and his daughter were forced into hiding shortly after August 2008, when he sued the national government to allow him to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID from Islam to Christianity.
El-Gohary followed in the footsteps of Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, 27, also a convert from Islam, in filing an ID case because he didn’t want his daughter to be forced to take Islamic education classes or have her declared an “apostate” by Egyptian Islamic authorities if she decided to stay a Christian into adulthood. Dina is required by law to possess an ID card. The ID card is used for everything from opening a bank account to receiving medical care. The identification also determines whether Egyptians are subject to Islamic civil courts.
Dina is the daughter of El-Gohary and his first wife, who is a Muslim. El-Gohary said that before he got married, he told his future wife that one day he would be baptized as a Christian. He said he now thinks she was convinced that he would eventually turn back to Islam. Over time, she grew tired of his refusal go back on his faith and complained to El-Gohary’s family, demanding a divorce.
“She started crying. She went to my parents and my brother and said, ‘This is not going to work out, I thought that he was going to change his mind. I didn’t think he was that serious about it,’” El-Gohary said. “She started talking about it to other people to the point where they started calling me from the loudspeakers of the local mosque, asking me what I was doing and ordering me to come back and pray.”
Eventually El-Gohary married another Muslim, and over the years she became a Christian. She has fled Egypt and lives in the United States; El-Gohary hasn’t seen her since March 2009.
On April 11, 2009, El-Gohary’s lawyers presented a conversion certificate from the Coptic Church in court. He obtained the certificate under court directions after going to Cyprus, at great expense, to obtain a baptismal certificate. The next month, the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court, provided the court with a report stating that El-Gohary’s change of faith violated Islamic law. They instructed that he should be subject to the death penalty.
In February 2009, lawyers opposing El-Gohary’s case advocated that he be sentenced to death for apostasy. On June 13, 2009, a Cairo judge rejected El-Gohary’s suit.
On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized his passport. He was trying to travel to China with the eventual hope of going to the United States. On March 9, 2010, the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return his passport. He has another hearing about the passport on June 29.
“I think it’s a kind of punishment, to set an example to other Muslims who want to convert,” El-Gohary said. “They want me to stay here and suffer to show other converts to be afraid. They are also afraid that if they let me go, then I will get out and start talking about what is happening in Egypt about the persecution and the injustice. We are trapped in our own country without even the rights that animals have.”
As recently as last week, El-Gohary and his daughter were living in a small, two-bedroom apartment across the street from a mosque on the outskirts of an undisclosed city in Egypt. The floor was littered with grime and bits of trash. Clumps of dust and used water bottles were everywhere.
El-Gohary had taped over the locks, as well as taped shut the inside of windows and doors, to guard against eavesdroppers and intruders. He had taped over all the drain holes of the sinks to keep anyone from pumping in natural gas at night.
Even the shower drain was taped over.
The yellow walls were faded, scuffed and barren, save for a single picture, a holographic portrait of Jesus, taped up in what qualified as a living room. El-Gohary motioned through a door to a porch outside. Rocks and pebbles thrown by area residents who recently learned that he lived there covered the porch.
“I would open the window, but I don’t want the rocks to start coming in,” he said.
El-Gohary has an old television set and a laptop with limited access to the Internet. Dina said she spends her time reading the Bible, talking to her father or drawing the occasional dress in preparation for obtaining her dream job, designing clothes.
Even the simple task of leaving El-Gohary’s apartment is fraught with risk. Every time he leaves, he places a padlock on the door, wraps it with a small plastic bag and melts the bag to the lock with a match.
El-Gohary cannot work and has to rely on the kindness of other Christians. People bring him food and water and the occasional donation. When the food runs out, he has to brave going outside.
“Our life is extremely, extremely hard. It’s hard for us to attend a church more than once because people will know it is us,” he said. “We can’t go to a supermarket more than once because we are going to be killed.”
Possibly the worst part for El-Gohary is watching his daughter suffer. A reflective youth with a gentle demeanor, Dina is quick to smile. But at a time when her life should be filled with friends, freedom and self-discovery, she is instead confined between four walls.
Even going to school, normally a simple thing, is fraught with dangerous possibilities. Dina hasn’t gone to school in about a year. She said that the last time she did, other students ridiculed her mercilessly, and a teacher hit her when she tried to attend religious classes for Christians instead of Muslims.
Now she and her father fear she could be beaten, kidnapped and forcibly converted, or simply killed. She can’t even go to church, she said.
“I don’t understand why I am being treated this way,” she said. “I believe in something, Christianity – I chose the religion because I love it. So why should I be treated this way?”
Dina was a little girl when she starting hearing about Jesus. Her father used to sit with her and tell her stories from the Bible, and he also told her about his conversion experience. Like her father, she cites a supernatural experience as a defining event in her faith.
One night, she said, she had a dream in which an enormous image of Jesus smiling appeared in a garden. She said the image became bigger and bigger until it touched the ground and became a golden church. She told her father about the dream, and since then she has believed in Christ.
Under Islamic law, Dina is considered a Muslim because her father was born as one. Because, like her father, Dina has decided to follow Christ, she is considered an “apostate” under most interpretations of Islamic law.
She gained national prominence in November 2009, when she wrote a letter, through a Coptic website, to U.S. President Barack Obama. She told the president that Muslims in the United States are treated much better than Copts in Egypt and asked why this was the case. She hopes the president will pressure the Egyptian government to ensure religious rights or let her and her father immigrate to the United States.
One afternoon last month, Dina was walking to a market with her father. As the two walked, El-Gohary noticed smoke and vapors coming off Dina’s jacket. The canvas was sizzling and dissolving. Someone had poured acid over the jacket. El-Gohary ripped it off her and threw it away.
“I asked people if they saw what happened and everyone said, ‘No, we didn’t see anything,’” El-Gohary said.
Luckily, Dina was not physically injured in the attack, but since then she has been terrified to go outside.
“I am very, very scared,” she said. “I haven’t gone outside since the attack happened.”
Change of Faith
El-Gohary, also known as Peter Athanasius, became a Christian 36 years ago while attending an academy for police trainees. During his second year of school, he became good friends with his roommate, a Copt and the only Christian in the academy. After watching cadets harass his roommate for praying, El-Gohary asked him why the others had ridiculed him.
“For me, it was the first time I had heard something like that,” El-Gohary said. “I didn’t have any Christian friends before, and I didn’t know about the level of persecution that takes place against Christians.”
Eventually, El-Gohary asked his friend for a Bible and took it home. His family tried to dissuade him from reading it.
“No, you can’t read the Bible,” his father told him. “It’s a really bad book.”
Undeterred, El-Gohary began reading the Bible in the privacy of his room. In the beginning, he said, the Bible was difficult to understand. But El-Gohary concentrated his efforts on the New Testament, and for the first time in his life, he said, he felt like God was speaking to him.
El-Gohary read the account of Jesus meeting the woman caught committing adultery, and the level of mercy that Jesus showed her transformed him, he said.
“Jesus said, ‘If anyone among you is without sin, then let him throw the first stone.’ The amount of forgiveness and love in this story really opened my eyes to the nature of Christianity,” El-Gohary said. “The main law that Jesus talked about was loving God ‘with all your heart, soul and mind.’ The basis of Christianity is love and forgiveness, unlike Islam, where it is based on revenge, fighting and war.”
Also, El-Gohary said, when he compared the two religions’ versions of heaven, he found that the Islamic version was about physical pleasure, whereas for Christians it was about being released from the physical world to be with God.
El-Gohary said his decision to follow Christ was final after he had a brilliant vision of light in his bedroom at his parents’ home, accompanied by the presence of “the peace of God.” El-Gohary said at first he thought he was seeing things, but then his father knocked on the door and demanded to know why the light was on. He told his father he was looking for something.
As a budding Christian convert, El-Gohary went back to the police academy and learned as much as he could about Christ and the Bible from his roommate. Persecution wasn’t long in coming.
One day an upperclassman spotted El-Gohary absent-mindedly drawing a cross on a notebook. The cadet sent El-Gohary to a superior for questioning.
El-Gohary avoided telling academy officials that his roommate had taught him about Christianity, but a captain at the school was able to piece together the evidence. The captain called El-Gohary’s father, a high-ranking officer at the academy, who in turn told the captain to make the young convert’s life “hell.”
Officials were imaginative in their attempts to break El-Gohary. He had to wake up before all the other students. He was ordered to carry his mattress around buildings and up and down flights of stairs. They exercised El-Gohary until he was about to pass out. Then they forced him to clean bathroom facilities with a toothbrush.
El-Gohary was not swayed from Christ, but he decided he couldn’t stay in what he said is the agency that “is the center of persecution against Christians” in Egypt. He tried numerous times to resign, but officials wouldn’t let him. Then he tried to get kicked out. Eventually, officials suspended the police cadet and sent him home for two weeks. At home, his family had a surprise waiting; they had hired an Islamic scholar to bring him back to Islam.
The scholar started by yelling Islamic teachings into El-Gohary’s ears, then moved on to write Quranic verses on his arms. El-Gohary remained seated and bore the humiliation in silence. Suddenly El-Gohary stood up, pinned the man against a wall and started yelling at him; the convert had caught the distinct smell of burning flesh – when he looked down at his arms, El-Gohary saw the scholar burning his hands with thin, smoldering iron rods.
“I said, ‘Enough! I have tolerated all of your talk. I have listened to all you have said, but this has gone too far,’” El-Gohary recalled. “The man said I had a ‘Christian demon’ inside me.”
As bad as things have been for El-Gohary and his daughter, their dedication seems rock-solid. They said they have never regretted their decisions to become Christians.
El-Gohary said that eventually, he will triumph.
“By law, my circumstance will have to change,” he said. “I have done nothing illegal.”
Dina is not so sure; she said she doesn’t feel like she has a future in Egypt, and she hopes to move to a place where she can get an education.
Whatever happens, both El-Gohary and his daughter said they are prepared to live in hiding indefinitely.
“There are days that I break down and cry, but I am not giving up,” Dina said. “I am still not going back to Islam.”
Report from Compass Direct News
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
Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.
THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.
Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.
There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.
Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.
An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.
If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.
“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”
The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.
The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”
Still a Monarchy
Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”
His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.
Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.
“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”
To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.
“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”
The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.
“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”
Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”
The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.
According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.
Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.
“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”
His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”
The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.
According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.
In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.
The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.
In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.
Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.
In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”
The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.
The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.
The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.
But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”
What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.
The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.
What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”
Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”
According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”
“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Gaza took another step towards strict Islamic law this week with the imposition of new dress codes on schoolgirls. Girls and young women returning to school on Sunday were told that they must wear jilbab, traditional Islamic sleeved robes, and cover their hair, or they would not be allowed to return to class, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.
This was revealed in a story by Maayana Miskin and posted on the website.
“Posters hung in Gaza City schools announced that all girls would be required to wear navy blue jilbab, a white headscarf, and white or black shoes. Dozens of students reported being sent home after appearing in school in jeans,” said Miskin.
“In addition, public high school classes have been separated, with boys and girls learning in different buildings.”
The story went on to say that according to some Gaza residents, the new rules are being enforced on members the region’s small Christian minority as well, despite the fact that Christians are generally considered exempt from following Islamic law. However, the laws have not been enforced within private Christian schools.
Hamas officials denied Monday that they were connected to the new school dress codes. The decision to enforce strict standards of dress was made at the local level, by individual principals, Hamas claimed.
Most girls and their families were in favor of the new dress codes, they added.
“Reports of a new school dress code caused anger in Judea and Samaria, where Palestinian Authority loyalists accused Hamas of violating the PA charter, which forbids the enforcement of a public dress code,” wrote Miskin.
“Earlier this month, a Gaza judge ordered that all female lawyers cover their hair in court. The decision caused a wave of protest from lawyers and human rights groups in Gaza, Judea and Samaria. Hamas distanced itself from that decision as well, saying the matter was a private issue for the courts to deal with.
“Several weeks ago, Hamas was accused of enforcing an informal dress code on women living in Gaza, and of allowing local militias to enforce strict standards of modest dress and behavior.”
Report from the Christian Telegraph
One pastor missing, three others reported killed in past month.
COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, November 4 – Christians in Colombia are anxious to learn the fate of pastor William Reyes, missing since Sept. 25, even as three other pastors have gone missing.
Reyes, a minister of the Light and Truth Inter-American Church and member of the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao (FRAMEN, Fraternidad de Ministros Evangélicos de Maicao), left a meeting in Valledupar, Cesar, at 10 a.m. that morning heading home to Maicao, La Guajira. He never arrived.
Family members and fellow ministers fear that Reyes may have been murdered by illegal armed groups operating in northern Colombia. Since March of this year, FRAMEN has received repeated threats from both the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary units.
Abduction is another possibility. Often criminals hold their victims for weeks or months before contacting family members to demand ransom, a tactic designed to maximize the anxiety of the victim’s loved ones before proceeding with ransom negotiations.
In the past month, three other Christian pastors were reportedly killed in separate incidents across the country. According to Pedro Acosta of the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL, Consejo Evangélico de Colombia), two ministers died in the northern Caribbean region and a third in Buenaventura on the Pacific coast.
At press time, members of the Peace Commission’s Documentation and Advocacy team, which monitors cases of political violence and human rights abuse, were traveling in those areas to verify the identities of the victims and circumstances of the killings.
Demand for Action
On Oct. 4, churches organized a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Reyes. Thousands of marchers filled the streets of Maicao to demand his immediate return to his family. The FRAMEN-sponsored rally featured hymns, sermons and an address from Reyes’s wife, Idia.
Idia Reyes continues to work as secretary of FRAMEN while awaiting news of her husband. The couple has three children, William, 19, Luz Mery, 16, and Estefania, 9.
CEDECOL and Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-based organization that assists violence victims, launched a letter-writing campaign to draw international attention to the case and request government action to help locate Reyes.
“We are grateful for the outpouring of prayer and support from churches in Canada, the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom,” stated an Oct. 26 open letter from Janna Hunter Bowman of Justapaz and Michael Joseph of CEDECOL’s Peace Commission. “Human rights violations of church people and of the civilian population at large are ongoing in Colombia. Last year the Justapaz Peace Commission program registered the murder of four pastors and 22 additional homicides of lay leaders and church members.”
Some of those killings may have been carried out by members of the Colombian Armed Forces, according to evidence emerging in recent weeks. Prosecutors and human rights groups have released evidence that some military units abduct and murder civilians, dress their bodies in combat fatigues and catalogue them as insurgents killed in battle.
According to an Oct. 29 report in The New York Times, soldiers commit the macabre murders for the two-fold purpose of “social cleansing” – the extrajudicial elimination of criminals, drug users and gang members – and to gain promotions and bonuses.
The scandal prompted President Alvaro Uribe to announce on Wednesday (Oct. 29) that he had dismissed more than two dozen soldiers and officers, among them three generals, implicated in the murders.
Justapaz has documented the murder of at least one evangelical Christian at the hands of Colombian soldiers. José Ulises Martínez served in a counterinsurgency unit until two years ago, but left the army “because what he had to do was not coherent with his religious convictions,” according to his brother, pastor Reinel Martínez.
Martínez was working at a steady job and serving as a leader of young adults in the Christian Crusade Church in Cúcuta on Oct. 29, 2007, when two acquaintances still on active duty convinced him to go with them to Bogotá to request a pension payment from the army. He called his girlfriend the following day to say he had arrived safely in the capital.
That was the last she or his family heard from him.
Two weeks later, Martínez’s parents reported his disappearance to the prosecutor’s office in Cúcuta. The ensuing investigation revealed that on Oct. 1, 2007, armed forces officers had presented photographs of Martinez’s body dressed in camouflage and identified as a guerrilla killed in combat. Later the family learned that Martínez was killed in Gaula, a combat zone 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Bogotá.
Such atrocities threaten to mar the reputation of Colombia’s Armed Forces just as the military is making remarkable gains against the FARC and other insurgent groups. Strategic attacks against guerrilla bases eliminated key members of the FARC high command in 2008. A daring July 2 rescue of one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other high-profile FARC hostages was greeted with jubilation around the world.
Yet in Colombia’s confused and convoluted civil war, Christians are still targeted for their role in softening the resolve of both insurgent and paramilitary fighters.
“I believe preventative security measures must be taken in order to protect victims from this scourge that affects the church,” Acosta said in reference to the ongoing threats to Colombian Christians. “In comparison to information from earlier [years], the cases of violations have increased.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Blast claims no victims but reflects radical Islam’s tightened grip.
ISTANBUL, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Taliban militants bombed a Catholic-run girls’ school in Pakistan’s war-torn Swat Valley as part of a larger effort to subvert women’s status in society through Islamic law, locals say.
On Wednesday (Oct. 8) the Islamic terrorist group bombed the Convent Girls’ School in Sangota, run by the Presentation Sisters, a Catholic religious order that has opened girls’ schools around the world. Militants have threatened the school frequently for offering education to females.
No one was injured in the attack. The school had closed a few months earlier due to deteriorating security in Swat, a source told Compass. Students and faculty left in July following threats.
“The Taliban said, ‘We have asked you so many times to close down the school but you are not listening. We are going to set it on fire,’” said Yousef Benjamin, a Lahore-based peace activist.
Militants had already attacked or blown up and forced the closure of many girls’ schools in Swat, said Cecil Chaudhry, executive secretary of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. They told the nuns they would destroy their school if it weren’t closed. Following the bombing the militants ransacked the school’s adjoining convent.
The high school enrolled approximately 1,000 female students, nearly 95 percent of them Muslim.
The Santoga school has faced threats from Islamic extremists before. It closed its doors in September 2007 after received a threatening letter from extremists that demanded all teachers and female students wear the burqa. The letter claimed the faculty was working to convert Muslim students to Christianity.
The Taliban has not singled out the school for its Christian ties but instead wants to clamp down on all girls’ schools, which they believe encourage female participation in society, government officials claim.
In the last two years it has indiscriminately targeted more than 150 public and private girls’ schools in northwest Pakistan.
“For them it doesn’t matter if it’s a Christian school, government school or a private school,” Benjamin said. “Last week I was in [the northern city of] Peshawer and the Taliban told women to not even go to the market.”
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1994 to 2001. They severely curtailed women’s rights, barring females from education, employment or traveling outside of their homes without a male relative.
“A few years ago the Taliban government in Afghanistan did not even allow women to be seen outside their houses, and that’s the version of Islam the Taliban promotes,” Chaudhry said.
Located near the Afghanistan border, Swat has been a flash point between the country’s security forces and Islamic militants. The area used to be a thriving tourist haven with hotels and a ski resort but came under complete control of Taliban militants in September 2007.
Government security forces cleared out the Taliban from the valley in recent months, but the area came under their control once again three weeks ago.
With their re-asserted control, the Taliban has forced all Swat residents to live according to their strict lifestyle guidelines, whether Muslim or Christian.
Men have grown beards and adopted Islamic dress. Women are required to wear burqas and sit in the back seat of their own vehicles. Advertisements cannot feature pictures of women.
“The Taliban wants to create a culture of terror, insecurity and they want to impose a self-created system of sharia [Islamic law] inspired by the system in Afghanistan,” said Shabhaz Bhatti, a National Assembly member from the Punjab province and chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.
The 70 or so Christian families scattered in the valley occupy the lower class, working as laborers and street sweepers.
Since July 2007, militants and followers of Muslim cleric Maulana Fazlullah have pressured the tiny community of Christians to accept Islamic law.
Islamic militants have stepped up attacks across Pakistan in recent weeks. Last Thursday (Oct. 9) a suicide bomber injured eight people in an attack on an Islamabad police station. In September another suicide bomber killed 50 people at the Marriott Hotel.
Motivations for the surge in attacks could be political as well as religious. Pakistani forces have been cracking down on militants in the nation’s tribal areas as the government has resolved to fight domestic terrorism.
The Pakistani military launched a three-week-long air strike operation in Afghanistan in August and killed more than 400 Taliban militants. Pakistan declared a cease-fire in September during Ramadan.
The militant attacks could also be in retaliation to recent U.S. bombings against Taliban targets within Pakistan, a source told Compass.
Inter-Services Intelligence Director Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha told Pakistan’s parliament on Wednesday (Oct. 8) that the Taliban had gained complete control over certain districts of the country. The military has attempted to regain control in a bitter struggle that has claimed the lives of 1,368 troops since 2001, according to the Pakistani Daily Times.
While Christians are worried about their safety, they stress that the Taliban is a threat to all Pakistanis, regardless of religion.
They urged fellow Christians to pray for the surging violence within the country to ebb.
“We ask a special prayer for peace in our country and that the terrorist elements who believe in violence would not succeed in killing innocent people,” Bhatti said. “Pray for Pakistani Christians – may God protect them and give them courage to remain strong in their faith and witness.”
Report from Compass Direct News