The link below is to an article that considers the bystander effect following the death of a man who was hit by a train in New York. Rather than try and help the man, a photographer chose to take a photo instead.
Right to share faith could harm Nepal’s Hindu identity, lawmakers believe.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 29 (CDN) — A new constitution that Nepal’s parliament is scheduled to put into effect before May 28 may not include the right to propagate one’s faith.
The draft constitution, aimed at completing the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy, contains provisions in its “religious freedom” section that prohibit anyone from converting others from one religion to another.
Most political leaders in the Himalayan country seemed unaware of how this prohibition would curb religious freedom.
“Nepal will be a secular state – there is no other way,” said Sushil Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress, Nepal’s “Grand Old Party,” but he added that he was not aware of the proposal to restrict the right to evangelism.
“Forcible conversions cannot be allowed, but the members of the Constituent Assembly [acting parliament] should be made aware of [the evangelism ban’s] implications,” Koirala, a veteran and one of the most influential politicians of the country, told Compass.
Gagan Thapa, another leader of the Nepali Congress, admitted that banning all evangelistic activities could lead to undue restrictions.
“Perhaps, the words, ‘force, inducement and coercion’ should be inserted to prevent only unlawful conversions,” he told Compass.
Man Bahadur Bishwakarma, also from the Nepali Congress, said that of all the faith communities in Nepal, Christians were most active in converting others, sometimes unethically.
“There are problems in Hinduism, such as the caste hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean you should convert out of it,” he said. “I believe in reforming one’s religion.”
Asked if the restriction on converting others violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Akal Bahadur of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) said, “It may, but there was a general consensus on it [the prohibition]. Besides, it is still a draft, not the final constitution.”
Nepal signed the ICCPR on May 14, 1991. Article 18 of the ICCPR includes the right to manifest one’s religion, which U.N. officials have interpreted as the right to evangelistic and missionary activities.
Akal Bahadur and Thapa are members of the Committee on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles, which was tasked to propose the scope of religious freedom and other rights in the draft constitution. This committee, one of 11 thematic panels, last year submitted a preliminary draft to the Assembly suggesting that a person should be allowed to decide whether to convert from one religion to another, but that no one should convert anyone else.
Binda Pandey, chairperson of the fundamental rights committee and member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), told Compass that it was now up to the Assembly to decide whether this provision violates religious freedom.
The Constitution Committee is condensing the preliminary drafts by all the committees as one draft constitution. At least 288 contentious issues arose out of the 11 committees, and the Constitution Committee has resolved 175 of them, Raju Shakya of the Kathmandu-based Centre for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD) told Compass.
The “religious freedom” provision with its ban on evangelism did not raise an eyebrow, however, as it is among the issues listed under the “Area of Agreement” on the CCD Web site.
Once compiled, the draft constitution will be subject to a public consultation, after which another draft will be prepared for discussion of clauses in the Constitutional Assembly; provisions will be implemented on a two-thirds majority, Shakya said.
Thapa of the fundamental rights committee indicated that religious conversion could become a contentious issue if the proposed restriction is removed. Even the notion of a secular state is not wholly accepted in the country.
“If you hold a referendum on whether Nepal should become a secular state, the majority will vote against it,” Thapa said.
Most Hindus see their religion as an essential part of the country’s identity that they want to preserve, he added.
Dr. K.B. Rokaya, the only Christian member of Nepal’s National Commission for Human Rights, said Nepal’s former kings created and imposed a Hindu identity for around 240 years because it suited them; under the Hindu ethos, a king should be revered as a god. Most of the numerous Hindu temples of Nepal were built under the patronage of the kings.
Rokaya added that Christians needed to be more politically active. The Assembly does not have even one Christian member.
According to the 2001 census, over 80 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people are Hindu. Christians are officially .5 percent, but their actual number is believed to be much higher.
Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until 2006, when a people’s movement led by former Maoist guerrillas and supported by political parties, including the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, ousted King Gyanendra.
An interim constitution was enacted in 2007, and the Constituent Assembly was elected through Nepal’s first fully democratic election a year later. The Assembly was supposed to promulgate a new constitution by May 28, 2010, but its term was extended by one year.
It is still uncertain, however, whether the approaching deadline will be met due to persistent disagreements among parties. The Maoist party has 220 members, the Nepali Congress 110, and the Unified Marxist Leninist 103 in the 575-member Assembly.
Rokaya, a member of the newly formed United Christians Alliance of Nepal, comprising a majority of Christian denominations, said Christians would continue to ask for full religious freedom. The use of inducement or force for conversions is deplorable, but the right to preach the tenets of one’s religion is a fundamental freedom, he added.
Report from Compass Direct News
Young Christian beaten, shackled to tree.
NAIROBI, Kenya, June 15 (CDN) — The Muslim parents of a 17-year-old Somali girl who converted to Christianity severely beat her for leaving Islam and have regularly shackled her to a tree at their home for more than a month, Christian sources said.
Nurta Mohamed Farah of Bardher, Gedo Region in southern Somalia, has been confined to her home since May 10, when her family found out that she had embraced Christianity, said a Christian leader who visited the area.
“When the woman’s family found out that she converted to Christianity, she was beaten badly but insisted on her new-found religion,” said the source on condition of anonymity.
Her parents also took her to a doctor who prescribed medication for a “mental illness,” he said. Alarmed by her determination to keep her faith, her father, Hassan Kafi Ilmi, and mother, Hawo Godane Haf, decided she had gone crazy and forced her to take the prescribed medication, but it had no effect in swaying her from her faith, the source said.
Traditionally, he added, many Somalis believe the Quran cures the sick, especially the mentally ill, so the Islamic scripture is continually recited to her twice a week.
“The girl is very sick and undergoing intense suffering,” he said.
Her suffering began after she declined her family’s offer of forgiveness in exchange for renouncing Christianity, the source said. The confinement began after the medication and punishments failed.
The tiny, shaken Christian community in Gedo Region reports that the girl is shackled to a tree by day and is put in a small, dark room at night, he said.
“There is little the community can do about her condition, which is very bad, but I have advised our community leader to keep monitoring her condition but not to meddle for their own safety,” the source told Compass. “We need prayers and human advocacy for such inhuman acts, and for freedom of religion for the Somali people.”
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government generally did not enforce protection of religious freedom found in the Transitional Federal Charter, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 International Religious Freedom Report.
“Non-Muslims who practiced their religion openly faced occasional societal harassment,” the report stated. “Conversion from Islam to another religion was considered socially unacceptable. Those suspected of conversion faced harassment or even death from members of their community.”
Muslim hardliners pressure government; nationals fears they may be next victim of ‘purging.’
ISTANBUL, May 21 (CDN) — In a second wave of deportations from Morocco, officials of the majority-Muslim country have expelled 26 foreign Christians in the last 10 days without due process.
Following the expulsion of more than 40 foreign Christians in March, the deportations were apparently the result of Muslim hardliners pressuring the nation’s royalty to show Islamic solidarity.
The latest deportations bring the number of Christians who have had to leave Morocco to about 105 since early March. Christians and expert observers are calling this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.
“I don’t see the end,” said Salim Sefiane, a Moroccan living abroad. “I see this as a ‘cleansing’ of Christians out of Morocco, and then I see this turning against the Moroccan church, which is already underground, and then persecution of Moroccan Christians, which is already taking place in recent days.”
At least two Moroccan Christians have been beaten in the last 10 days, sources told Compass, and police have brought other Moroccan Christians to police stations daily for psychologically “heavy” interrogations.
Authorities are enquiring about the activities of foreign and local Christians.
Legal sources said that according to Moroccan law, foreigners who have lived in the country for more than 10 years cannot be deported unless they are accused of a crime. They have the right to appeal the deportation order within 48 hours.
With only hours’ notice and forced escort to the country’s exit ports, almost none of the deportees were able to appeal their deportations.
“Most of these [deportations] are happening over the weekends, when the courts are closed,” Sefiane said. “Most of them are done in a way where they’re bringing them in [to the police station], intimidating them, and manhandling them out of the country. Many of them are not even going back to say goodbye to their wives, or even to pack a bag.”
With the exception of three foreigners, in none of the forced deportations did authorities produce an official deportation order, sources said. In many cases, Moroccan officials used embassies to notify foreigners that they were being deported. In most cases, foreigners were presented with a document in Arabic for them to sign that stated that they “understood” that they were being deported.
Compass learned of one case in which a foreigner was forced to the airport, and when he resisted he was forcibly drugged and sent to his native country.
“The expats in the country are very vulnerable, and the way it has happened has been against the laws of the country,” said a European Christian who was deported last week after nearly a decade of running his business in Morocco. “When I tried to walk away from the situation, I was physically stopped.”
The deported Christian said that authorities never informed any of the Christian foreigners of their rights, when in fact there are national laws protecting foreigners.
“Basically they are trying to con everyone into leaving the country,” he said.
Deported foreigners have had to leave their families behind in Morocco, as well as their friends and communities. Many of the deportees were the male breadwinners of the family and have left their families behind as they try to decide their future.
“It’s devastating, because we have invested years of our lives into our community, business community and charity sectors,” said the European Christian. “People flooded to our house when they heard I was bundled into the back of a police car by the local authorities. It was like a death in the family – forcibly ejected from the country without being able to say goodbyes, just like that.”
The deportees have included Christians from North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, New Zealand and Korea.
“It’s come out of left field,” said the European. “No one really knows why this is happening.”
A regional legal expert said on condition of anonymity that a small number of extremist Muslims have undertaken a media campaign to “get [Christians’] good works out of the public eye and demonize Christians,” in order to expel them and turn the nation against local Christians – some of whom are third-generation followers of Jesus.
“There are too many eyes and ears to what they want to do to the native Christians,” said the expert. “They’re trying to get to them …They want to shut down the native Moroccan Christians.”
Deportation orders are coming from the Ministry of Interior, and speculation on the reason for the sudden spike in expulsions has centered on the arrival of a new, hard-line Muslim interior director in January.
Moroccan officials have cited “proselytism” as the reason for the deportations. Reuters news agency reported Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmed Toufiq as saying “proselytism” and “activism of some foreigners” had “undermined public order.”
On April 12 local media reported that 7,000 religious Muslim leaders signed a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.
Religious rights advocates point out that under Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the more than 100 foreigners who had lived in Morocco, some for decades, not only had the right to stay in the country but had contributed to the nation.
“They expelled people who helped build up the country, trained people, educated Moroccan children, cared for orphans and widows, increased the GDP and trade,” said the regional legal expert. “These people they expelled weren’t even proselytizing under their own law. There’s an international standard, yet they changed the definition of the terminology and turned it into this horrible ‘religious terrorism.’”
One of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions, George Washington Academy in Casablanca, has come under fierce criticism from media and investigation by authorities.
“The biggest problem is the image the Ministry of Justice is pushing about who the Christian foreigners are,” said another observer on condition of anonymity. “All the articles have been extreme exaggerations of the manipulative aspect of what foreigners were doing, and especially when it comes to minors.”
Local Christians have reported to sources outside of Morocco that attitudes towards them, which used to be more tolerant, have also shifted as a result of the extremist-led campaign, and some are experiencing family and societal pressure and discrimination as well.
While the deportations have perplexed the local Christian community, the regional legal expert said that in some ways this was calculated and inevitable.
He said that the Organization of the Islamic Conference had been putting pressure on countries across the Middle East and North Africa to remove their Christian elements. Iraq, with its decline in Christian population from a few million to a few hundred thousand over the last decade, is a case in point.
“Countries which have been more forward looking and spoken about rights, freedoms and equalities have been pressured to demonstrate their Muslim credentials, and the best way to do this is to sanitize [religious] minorities from the borders,” he said.
Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, has called congressional hearings on June 17 to examine the human rights situation in Morocco in light of the expulsions. On Wednesday (May 19) Wolf called on the U.S. government to suspend $697.5 million in aid it has pledged to Morocco based on criteria that it is “ruling justly.”
“We’ve been told the Christians are a threat to the national security, so they are using terrorism laws against peace-loving Christians,” said the deported European Christian. “But it is massively backfiring.”
The Christian described how the Moroccan friends of Christian foreigners have been asking why they are being deported for their faith.
“They are being impacted by the reality of Christ through this, and it’s having more of an effect on the community than years and years of quietly demonstrating Christ peacefully and lawfully,” he said. “By breaking their own laws, they have opened the lid on the reality of the life of Christ.”
There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.
Report from Compass Direct News
Attacks in Kano state said to stem from hostility by converts to Islam, land dispute.
LAGOS, Nigeria, May 21 (CDN) — Scores of Muslim youths on Wednesday (May 19) besieged church property in Kano state in northern Nigeria, destroying two church buildings and a pastor’s residence.
One of the buildings and the pastor’s house were set ablaze on the premises of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) at Kwasam, in the Kiru Local Government Area, while another building under construction was demolished. Youths reportedly numbering more than 100 in the predominantly Muslim area stormed the church grounds.
“The problem started when some Christian youths of ECWA church were converted to Islam,” the Rev. Lado Abdul, chairman of ECWA district in Kano, told Compass. “They swore that the ECWA church would not remain in the area, as they would do everything possible to chase Christians out from Kiru.”
The ECWA pastor whose house was demolished, Gambo Mato, has found shelter in another Christian’s home.
No life was lost during or after the incident as police and State Security Service officers intervened, and traditional rulers, religious leaders and government officials held an urgent meeting to quell potential skirmishes and establish security.
Abdul, however, lamented the denial of rights to Christians in Kano by area Muslims.
“Here in Kano, nobody gives you land to build a church,” he said. “The old churches built before now are being demolished for reasons no one can easily grasp. We have taken our complaint to Sarki Kano [traditional emir of Kano] Alhaji Ado Bayero, and he assured us that something would be done about it. We are looking to the state government to come to our rescue.”
Kano State Police Commissioner Mohammed Gana said that the attack on the church buildings grew out of a land dispute.
“The old church was a mud house, and the ECWA people wanted to rebuild it with blocks,” Gana said. “In the process, there was a disagreement, but we moved in to ensure peace and order.”
Four suspects have been arrested, and an investigation continues, the police chief said.
Elsewhere in Kano state, in Banaka of the Takai Local Government Area, a Baptist church was reportedly demolished on Saturday (May 15).
Kano state, one of 12 states in Nigeria where sharia (Islamic law) is in effect, has been the site of periodic Islamic aggression against the minority Christian community. Last year, when an Islamic extremist sect known as Boko Haram instigated rioting in Bauchi state that killed at least 12 Christians, the firestorm of violence spread to Kano state as well as Borno and Yobe states.
In 2008, hundreds of Muslims took to the streets of Kano city on April 20, attacking Christians and their shops and setting vehicles on fire based on claims that a Christian had blasphemed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Thousands of Christians were trapped in church buildings until police could disperse the assailants.
An unidentified Christian was said to have written an inscription on a shop wall that disparaged the prophet of Islam. Muslims at a market in the Sabon Garia area of the city reportedly attacked the Christian, whom police rescued and took to the area police station.
Muslims in large numbers soon trooped to the police station, threatening to set it ablaze unless officers released the Christian to be stoned to death in accordance with sharia, sources said.
Report from Compass Direct News
With deadline for new constitution approaching, Christians fear end of secular government.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 30 (CDN) — Four years after Nepal became officially secular, fear is growing that the country could revert to the Hindu state it was till 2006, when proclaiming Christ was a punishable offense and many churches functioned clandestinely to avoid being shut down.
Concerns were heightened after Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra Shah, once regarded as a Hindu god, broke the silence he has observed since Nepal abolished monarchy in 2008. During his visit to a Hindu festival this month, the former king said that monarchy was not dead and could make a comeback if people so desired.
Soon after that, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister and respected leader of the largest ruling party, said that instead of getting a new constitution, Nepal should revive an earlier one. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom with a constitutional monarch.
There is now growing doubt that the ruling parties will not be able to fashion the new constitution they promised by May.
“We feel betrayed,” said Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal. “The Constituent Assembly we elected to give us a new constitution that would strengthen democracy and secularism has frittered away the time and opportunity given to it.”
The clamor for a Hindu state has been growing as the May 28 deadline for the new constitution draws near. When a Hindu preacher, Kalidas Dahal, held a nine-day prayer ritual in Kathmandu this month seeking reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, thousands of people flocked to him. The throng included three former prime ministers and top leaders of the ruling parties.
“The large turnout signals that Hinduism is enshrined in the hearts of the people and can’t be abolished by the government,” said Hridayesh Tripathi, a former minister and Constituent Assembly member whose Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party is the fifth-largest in the ruling alliance. “It was a mistake to abolish Hinduism in a hurry.”
Another blow for a Hindu state was struck by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), the only party that fought the 2008 election in support of monarchy and a Hindu state. It is now calling for a referendum. As a pressure tactic, it paralyzed the capital and its two neighboring cities in February by calling a general strike.
“The election gave the Constituent Assembly the mandate of writing a new constitution, not deciding issues of national importance,” said Kamal Thapa, the RPP-N chief who also was home minister during the brief government headed by Gyanendra. “Most people in Nepal want a Hindu state and a constitutional king. If their demand is not heeded, they will feel excluded and refuse to follow the new constitution. We are asking the government to hold a referendum on the two issues before May 28.”
With only two months left, it is clear the demand can’t be met if the constitution is to come into effect within the stipulated time. Now the specter of anarchy and violence hangs over Nepal.
Nepal’s Maoists, who fought a 10-year war to make Nepal a secular republic and who remain the former king’s most bitter enemy, say attempts have begun to whip up riots in the name of a Hindu state. The former guerrillas also allege that the campaign for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion is backed by ministers, politicians from the ruling parties and militant religious groups from India.
Even if a new, secular constitution is approved by the deadline, there is still no guarantee that the rights of religious minorities would be protected.
Nilambar Acharya, who heads the committee that is drafting the new constitution, said it would be merely a broad guideline for the government; compatible laws would have to be drafted to protect rights.
“The previous constitution abolished ‘untouchability’ [a practice among Hindus of treating those at the bottom of the social ladder as outcasts],” Acharya told Compass. “But untouchability still exists in Nepal. To achieve all that the constitution promises, the mindset of society has to be changed first. For that, you need political will.”
Though Nepal became secular in 2006, Hinduism still gets preferential treatment. The state allocates funds for institutions like the Kumari, the tradition of choosing prepubescent girls as protective deities of the state and worshipping them as “living goddesses.” The state also gave money to organizers of a controversial, five-yearly religious festival, the Gadhimai Fair, where tens of thousands of birds are slaughtered as offerings to Hindu gods despite international condemnation.
There is no support, predictably, for Christian festivals. When the Constituent Assembly was formed – partly though election and partly by nomination – no Christian name was proposed even though the prime minister was authorized to nominate members from unrepresented communities.
Christian leaders want such religious bias abolished. Rokaya of the National Council of Churches of Nepal said Christians have recommended full freedom of religion in the new constitution: allowing one to follow the religion of one’s choice, to change one’s religion if desired or have the right not to be associated with any religion.
The churches have also asked the state not to interfere in religious matters.
“We are asking the government not to fund any religious activity, not to be part of any religious appointments and not to allow public land for any religious event,” Rokaya said.
The recommendations, however, may not be heeded. During their brief stint in power, the Maoists tried to stop state assistance for the Kumari. It led to violence and a general strike in the capital, forcing the party to withdraw the decision.
In its 2009 report on religious freedom in Nepal, the U.S. Department of State notes that while the interim constitution officially declared the country secular, “the president, in his capacity as head of state, attended major Hindu religious ceremonies over which the king previously presided.”
It also notes that there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.
“Those who converted to a different religious group occasionally faced violence and were ostracized socially,” it states. “Those who chose to convert to other religious groups, in particular Hindu citizens who converted to Islam or Christianity, were sometimes ostracized. They occasionally faced isolated incidents of hostility or discrimination from Hindu extremist groups. Some reportedly were forced to leave their villages.”
Dr. Ramesh Khatri, executive director of Association for Theological Education in Nepal, has experienced such persecution first-hand. When he became a Christian in 1972, his father disowned him. Then in 1984 he was arrested for holding a Bible camp. Though the case against him was dropped in 1990 after a pro-democracy movement, Khatri said hatred of Christians still persists.
“Christians can never sleep peacefully at night,” he said wryly. “The new constitution will make Nepal another India, where Christians are persecuted in Orissa, Gujarat and Karnataka.” The Oxford University-educated Khatri, who writes a column in a Nepali daily, said violent responses to his articles show how Nepal still regards its Christians.
“I am attacked as a ‘Rice Christian,’” he said. “It is a derogatory term implying I converted for material benefits. The antagonistic feeling society has towards Christians will not subside with the new constitution, and we can’t expect an easy life. The Bible says that, and the Bible is true.”
Christians continue to face persecution and harassment. In March, missions resource organization Timeless Impact International (TII) noted that a church in northern Nepal, near the foothills of Mt. Everest, was attacked by a local mob.
The newly established church in Dolakha district was attacked during a fellowship meeting in January. An ethnic mob headed by religious leaders destroyed the church meeting place, assaulted participants and warned them not to speak about Christianity in the village, TII said.
The situation, even now, remained unchanged.
“None of the church members have been able to return to their homes,” TII stated. “They feel completely unsafe and at risk.”
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
Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.
Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.
The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.
Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.
Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.
There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.
Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.
Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.
“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”
Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.
A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.
Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.
Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.
“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”
The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.
“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”
The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.
“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.
Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.
“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.
Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.
“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.
A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.
“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”
Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”
Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.
Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.
“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”
Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.
Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”
“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”
Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.
“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”
Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”
The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”
“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”
The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.
Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.
The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.
“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.
Report from Compass Direct News