Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law

Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.


‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.


Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”



Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News


As India conducts its month-long national elections, a leading Indian bishop has accused Hindu nationalists of threatening Orissa state voters with violence and pursuing a “secret agenda” to flush Christians out of the region, reports Catholic News Agency.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, speaking in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), claimed that leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have made death threats against people unwilling to vote for them. He said the BJP was determined to eliminate Christianity from Orissa state’s Kandhamal district, where the vast majority of the state’s churchgoers live. Catholic priests in Orissa report that the BJP has warned Christians in Kandhamal district that if they voted for other candidates, the party would bully them into leaving the area, ACN says.

Nearly 30,000 people fled the district in 2007 and 2008 during anti-Christian attacks on nearly 300 villages in Kandhamal. Eighty people, including a Catholic priest, were killed. About 270 churches and chapels were desecrated while 6,000 homes were destroyed.

Archbishop Cheenath told ACN that people in relief camps in Kandhamal were generally able to vote. However, he said “several thousands” who fled the district during the violence were denied the vote because they were prevented from registering.

“The BJP party officials have threatened to attack the Christians and chase them away. The threats were very serious and there has been a great fear among the people,” the archbishop said, speaking from Bangalore.

“The problem for the people was made worse because the authorities in Orissa took no tangible steps to prevent such things from happening.”

“The secret agenda of the [BJP politicians] is to remove the Christians from Kandhamal,” Archbishop Cheenath said. “It was clear that this was what they wanted to do before the elections and if they win again there is no doubt that they will continue in that way.”

A Catholic priest in Kandhamal on election day reported that trees had been felled to block access to villages in order to prevent people from voting. The same tactic was used during the anti-Christian violence.

The priest said there was hardly any movement of the people.

“My colleagues and I were scared… I reached the polling booth of my village but after only two hours [of voting] the booth was literally empty. We were the first ones to cast our votes.”

The priest told ACN it was important to remember that thousands of people are still living outside the district and had not exercised their vote.

“Are these not citizens?” he asked.

The priest also alleged that four Hindus gang-raped a girl after learning that her uncle had refused to abandon his Christian faith.

In the run-up to the elections, BJP Kandhamal candidate Ashok Sahu was arrested for making an anti-Christian speech in the village of Raikia. He has since been released.

According to ACN, Sahu was closely linked to Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, the militant anti-Christian Hindu leader whose murder last August, allegedly by Maoists, sparked widespread violence against churchgoers.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


As violence continues to spiral out of control in Pakistan, ANS has received news that indiscriminate firing by a group of Muslim men on congregants of a Presbyterian church in Gujranwala district on Monday, March 2, left a woman dead and 11 others injured, reports Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, special to ASSIST News Service.

Several Muslim men, identified as Amjad, Balal, Zeeshan, Azam and others whose identities could not be ascertained by ANS, opened fire on worshipping Christians at the Presbyterian Church in Songo, which is a town that is some 7 kilometers from Gujranwala city, a week after two Muslim men robbed a Christian resident of the area on gunpoint.

On February 25, two Muslim men intercepted a Christian man, Imran, on his way home and robbed him at gunpoint of 3,000 Pakistani Rupees ($37.3506 USD), a mobile phone and a wrist watch.

Bleeding, Imran, after going home, he then went to the local police station to report the incident. The matter was “resolved” after Muslim notables brokered reconciliation between Imran and the accused.

However, the patch-up proved short-lived, as several armed Muslims made forcible entry into several homes of Christians on March 2 and allegedly harassed and threatened Christians.

Another group of Muslims, who were carrying iron rods, clubs, and guns, entered into the church. They opened fire at the congregants. The culprits allegedly also smashed the windows of the church and desecrated Bibles. They removed the cross erected at the roof of the church and left the scene shouting at the Christians that they would face worse attacks if they did not leave the town.

Talking to ANS by phone, Pastor Patras of the Presbyterian church, said that moving the inured Christians to the local hospital was not without a struggle. Elaborating on this, he said the Muslims had blocked the road leading to hospital apparently to stop Christians from going to Gujranwala District Headquarter Hospital. He said they were eventually able to shift the injured to the hospital after police intervention.

”Police vehicles ferried the injured to the hospital,” he said.

Commenting on the death of Christian woman, Shakeela, who succumbed to her bullet injuries, Shahzad Kamran of the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP) called for her post-mortem.

He alleged that the police “are not taking any action to arrest assailants.”

Mr. Sohail Johnson, Chief Coordinator of SLMP, who visited the scene of incident, condemned what he called “a brutal attack” on Christians and urged prayer partners of the ministry to pray for protection of Pakistani Christians.

“Fundamentalist Muslims are targeting Christians as they cannot tolerate their existence in Pakistan,” he told ANS.

Pastor Patras claimed that the attitude of the nursing staff and medics at the government-run hospital was “callous and indifferent” toward the injured Christians. He said the gunmen had “exercised their influence over the hospital staff” after failing to “stop injured Christians from arriving at the hospital.”

“The medics at the DHQ Gujranwala asked us to take Shakeela to Lahore. It took us a long time to arrange an ambulance as we had no resources,” said Pastor Patras, who believes, Shakeela’s death could have been averted if multiple odds were not stacked against them.

Asked if the police had made any arrests, he said they arrested a couple of people but said “the real culprits are still scot-free.”

Pastor Patras described the situation as “extremely tense”, adding, “Fearing attacks, Christians have shut themselves in their houses. We are scared and are praying for our safety.”

He said Muslims had also attacked Christian residents of Kotli Sahvo, a village in Gujranwala district on February 28. “Police did not even file a report, let alone take action against the culprits,” he alleged.

“Even if a report was lodged. We would lose it in the court as we would not have resources to hire a lawyer,” he said.

ANS has discovered that local Christians have protested against the incident and have demanded immediate arrests of the culprits.

Report from the Christian Telegraph