Full response from Sherry Sufi for a FactCheck on native title

Lucinda Beaman, The Conversation

In an opinion piece published by Fairfax Media, WA Liberal Party policy committee chairman and PhD candidate Sherry Sufi argued that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded”.

The Conversation asked Sufi for sources and comment to support his statement, for inclusion in this FactCheck. Here is Sufi’s full response:

Disclaimer: My article in Fairfax Media and the correspondence with The Conversation are not statements on behalf of the WA Liberal Party or any of its constituent bodies. The views expressed are my own.

As one of the 193 member states of the United Nations, Australia exists as part of a rules-based world order.

Land conquests through war of aggression were only criminalised after World War II.

This prohibition does not apply retroactively. Doing so would throw the entire world map into turmoil.

It applies on future attempts to conquer. The status quo of international borders at the time was deemed ‘frozen’. Lands conquered before the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) are deemed lawful conquests.

Yale Professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro have comprehensively addressed this topic in their recent publication ‘The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World’. Check Part III, Chapter One.

So it follows that if Australia was invaded, then it has been conquered. This would technically negate claims to separate land rights for descendants of native populations.

Yet the Mabo decision rested on the presumption that Australia was settled, not invaded. Therefore, native title is safe.

Sources that support my argument that territories invaded and annexed prior to the prohibition of war are legitimate conquests:

“However, under the doctrine of intertemporal law and pursuant to the general principle of non-retroactivity of the law, the title to territory conquered and annexed at the time when international law allowed acquisition of title by a conqueror, remains legally valid.” – Boczek, A. (2005). International Law: A Dictionary. Scarecrow Press, page 213.

“ … that before the UN Charter and the recognition of the right of self-determination, conquest and colonisation were legal.” – McDonnell, T. (2009). The United States, International Law, and the Struggle Against Terrorism. Routledge, page 280.

Sources that support my argument that Australia was settled, not invaded:

“It is fundamentally to our legal system that the Australian colonies became British possessions by settlement and not by conquest.”
– Gibbs J in Coe v Commonwealth (1979).

“Most legal commentators agree the ‘foundation case’ of the Australian legal system was the UK Privy Council judgement in Cooper v. Stuart (1889), which described the colony of New South Wales as having been ‘peacefully annexed’ by Britain in 1788.” – Windschuttle, K. (2016). The Break-Up of Australia: the real agenda behind Aboriginal recognition. Quadrant Books, page 376.

“The High Court’s decision in Mabo not only preserves the distinction between settled territories on the one hand and conquered or ceded territories on the other, but it also clarifies the law that applies in territories that have been settled in circumstances like Australia.” – Secher, U. (2005). The Mabo Decision – Preserving the Distinction between Settled and Conquered or Ceded Territories

Here are the relevant quotes from the Mabo decision that support my argument:

“International law recognised conquest, cession, and occupation of territory that was terra nullius as three of the effective ways of acquiring sovereignty.”

“As among themselves, the European nations parcelled out the territories newly discovered to the sovereigns of the respective discoverers … provided the discovery was confirmed by occupation and provided the indigenous inhabitants were not organised in a society that was united permanently for political action.”

“The acquisition of territory is chiefly the province of international law; the acquisition of property is chiefly the province of the common law. The distinction between the Crown’s title to territory and the Crown’s ownership of land within a territory is made as well by the common law as by international law.”

Response from Kate Galloway, lead author of the FactCheck:

As to whether the law deems Australia to have been settled, not invaded, the sources Sufi has cited above are correct.

However, Sufi’s final paragraph contains the reason that his claim that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled not invaded” is incorrect. As Sufi has cited from the Mabo decision, “the acquisition of property [native title] is chiefly the province of the common law”.

Following this, Sufi does not examine the common law rules about land ownership that would apply if Australia had been deemed conquered. This is the missing link in his original argument, and why the claim is incorrect.

The ConversationRead the full FactCheck here.

Lucinda Beaman, FactCheck Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


FactCheck: can native title ‘only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded’?

Kate Galloway

… there is a fundamental point which goes to the heart of this debate that literally no one, to date, seems to have picked up on …

Native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded.

– Excerpt from an opinion piece written by Sherry Sufi, chairman of the WA Liberal Party policy committee, published by Fairfax Media, January 20, 2018

Every January, the debate about the date of Australia’s national day intensifies.

The current date of Australia Day – January 26 – marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of Europeans in Australia. To some Australians, this date is known as Invasion Day, or Survival Day.

The Australian Greens party has renewed its campaign to change the date of Australia Day. Greens leader Richard di Natale has lent his voice to the argument that January 26 marks “the beginning of an invasion”.

In an opinion piece, WA Liberal Party policy committee chairman Sherry Sufi said Di Natale was “attempting to undermine native title by implying that Australia was invaded and conquered”.

Sufi argued that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded”.

Let’s look at the law.

Checking the source

When asked for sources and comment to support his statement, Sherry Sufi provided this response:

Disclaimer: My article in Fairfax Media and the correspondence with The Conversation are not statements on behalf of the WA Liberal Party or any of its constituent bodies. The views expressed are my own.

As one of the 193 member states of the United Nations, Australia exists as part of a rules-based world order. Land conquests through war of aggression were only criminalised after World War II.

This prohibition does not apply retroactively. Doing so would throw the entire world map into turmoil.

It applies on future attempts to conquer. The status quo of international borders at the time was deemed ‘frozen’. Lands conquered before the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) are deemed lawful conquests.

So it follows that if Australia was invaded, then it has been conquered. This would technically negate claims to separate land rights for descendants of native populations.

Yet the Mabo decision rested on the presumption that Australia was settled, not invaded. Therefore, native title is safe.

You can read Sufi’s full response and references cited here.


Sherry Sufi’s claim that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded” is incorrect.

Native title is the legal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ property rights to Australian land that existed when the English took possession of the territory in 1788. Native title was recognised by the Australian High Court in the 1992 Mabo case.

Had Australia originally been deemed to be conquered – or “invaded” – rather than settled, native title would indeed have existed.

Under English law, if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were conquered, they would have retained their interests in land – or native title – under their own laws, until those laws were overturned by the English.

Responding to Sufi’s argument

As to whether the law deems Australia to have been settled, not invaded, the sources Sufi has cited in his full response to The Conversation are correct.

However, Sufi’s response contains the reason that his claim that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled not invaded” is incorrect.

As Sufi has cited from the 1992 Mabo decision, “the acquisition of property [native title] is chiefly the province of the common law”. Following this, Sufi does not examine the common law rules about land ownership that would apply if Australia had been deemed conquered.

This is the missing link in his original argument, and why the claim is incorrect.

In his article, Sufi justified his claim, in part, on the grounds that “international law recognises all territories acquired through invasion and annexation by force, prior to World War II, as lawful conquests”.

Whether or not that statement in itself is accurate is a matter for an international law expert to determine.

Because even if this is now the status of international law, it concerns the basis of sovereignty in modern times. To the extent that the means of acquiring sovereignty is relevant to native title law, it is sovereignty in 1788 that is relevant.

The High Court of Australia in the 1992 Mabo decision found that an Australian court does not have the power to challenge the basis on which the English claimed sovereignty in 1788.

The status of Australian land law, including native title, is a different matter: it is determined under domestic law, not international law. Australian courts do have the power to alter domestic law, which is what the Court did in Mabo.

So Sufi’s statement about international law, whether correct or incorrect in itself, is not relevant to native title in Australia. The justification does not stand.

Let’s look at the relevant law.

Conquest or settlement?

To assess Sufi’s primary claim, we need to look at what happened when Europeans arrived in Australia in 1788, and at the 1992 Mabo case heard in the Australian High Court, which formed the basis of native title in Australia.

The Mabo case decision is the primary source document for this FactCheck.

In 1788, England sought to establish itself as sovereign – or the governing body – over Australian territory.

There are a number of ways to become sovereign under international law. In considering what happened in Australia in 1788, Justice Brennan – who wrote the leading judgment in Mabo – focused on the three most relevant. They were:

  • conquest – the acquisition of a territory by force,
  • cession – an existing state transfers sovereignty over its territory to another state, or
  • occupation – taking possession of a territory not under the control of an existing sovereign.

In his article, Sufi talks about the consequences of “invasion”. The international law described in Mabo refers to “conquest” rather than invasion. So that’s the term I’ll use in this FactCheck.

Fact or legal fiction?

Of those pathways to becoming sovereign over Australia, the English considered themselves to be ‘occupiers’.

The concept of ‘occupation’ relies on the land being ‘terra nullius’ – or belonging to no one. In its literal sense, this means there were no prior inhabitants in the territory.

Of course, that was not the case in Australia – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had been living in the country for at least 65,000 years before the First Fleet arrived.

But the arriving Europeans took the approach that Australia’s Indigenous peoples were “too low in the scale of social organisation to be acknowledged as possessing rights and interests in land”, and were deemed not to have laws, or to be sovereign over Australia.

This allowed for the application of what Justice Brennan described as an “enlarged notion of terra nullius”, and for the English to deem that they had occupied the land.

It’s important to note that in this case, terra nullius, and therefore occupation, is a ‘legal fiction’: an assertion of a state of affairs deemed by the law to be valid, even though it may not be factual.

Who owns the land?

Having established sovereignty, England needed to determine what law applied in the new colony – and in particular, what law applied to the ownership of land.

This was a question for English law, rather than international law.

Under English law, in territories that were conquered or ceded, the existing laws of the original inhabitants would continue to apply until they were overturned by the English.

Therefore, if Australia had been deemed to be conquered, or “invaded”, the existing laws of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including laws about land ownership, would have continued to apply until the English repealed them.

However, for territory that had been occupied or settled – as was declared to be the case in Australia – English law would be imported, including English land law. Under that law, the Crown owned all land.

The Mabo decision

These concepts were challenged in the Mabo case in the Australian High Court in 1992.

In the Mabo decision, Justice Brennan stated that the concept of terra nullius ignored the reality of the existing inhabitants of the territory.

The Mabo decision found that the legal fiction that Australia was uninhabited could no longer stand. It acknowledged that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples did have a recognised system of laws.

The Mabo decision did not change the international law position that Australia had been occupied. What the Court did do was create a new English law category for working out what law applied: the territory was settled, but inhabited.

Based on this new category, sovereignty and land ownership were separated. The Crown was no longer automatically the owner of all the land.

Instead, the original occupants of Australia – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – remained the owners until the Crown extinguished their interests, or they were otherwise lost. This is native title.


So, what does that all mean for Sufi’s claim?

Sufi said “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded”.

In 1788 Australia was, under English law, deemed to be settled. In 1992, the Australian High Court deemed Australia to have been settled, but inhabited. Because of that decision, native title as we know it today does exist. Land law stopped being English land law, and became Australian land law.

Had Australia been deemed to be conquered (or “invaded”), the interests in the land – the native title – would also have existed. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would have continued to own the land until the Crown extinguished those interests.

Either way, whether Australia was deemed to be “invaded” or settled, Australian land law would recognise Indigenous interests in land – that is, it would recognise native title. – Kate Galloway

Blind review

The verdict is clearly correct.

It is not the case that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded”.

As this FactCheck points out, it is to the contrary. It has long been a rule of English law that in a colony acquired by conquest the former laws continue to apply until altered by the conqueror, and rights to land continue until they are extinguished.

Some elements of the Mabo decision have been contested by scholars. This is not one of them. It is very clear that native title could exist if Australia were characterised as conquered. – Leon Terrill

The Conversation FactCheck is accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network.

The Conversation’s FactCheck unit is the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.

The ConversationHave you seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

Kate Galloway, Associate Professor of Law

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Russia: Latest Persecution News

The following article reports on the latest persecution news out of Russia. Strange views of Christians and sects exist among Russian officials as the article reports.


Algerian Christians to Appeal Conviction for Worshipping

Church leaders fear verdict could mean the end of the country’s Protestant churches.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — Four Christian men in Algeria will appeal a court decision to hand them suspended prison sentences for worshiping without a permit, saying the verdict could have repercussions for all the country’s churches.

The correctional court of Larbaa Nath Irathen, about 27 kilometers (17 miles) from the capital of Tizi Ouzou Province, gave two-month suspended prison sentences to four Christian leaders of a small Protestant church on Sunday (Dec. 12).

The pastor of the church, Mahmoud Yahou, was also charged with hosting a foreigner without official permission. The court gave him a three-month suspended sentence and a fine of 10,000 Algerian dinars (US$130), reported French TV station France 24 on its Web site. The prosecutor had asked for one-year prison sentences for each defendant.

Although the suspended sentences mean the four Christians will not serve prison time, Yahou told Compass that he and the three other men plan to appeal the verdict because the outcome of their case could affect all Protestant churches of the country, none of which have official permission to operate.

“If they close us, they can close all the gatherings and churches that exist in Algeria,” Yahou said. “They could all be closed.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03, which was established in 2006. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance. No churches have been closed down since then.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, no churches or Christian groups have received governmental approval to operate, and the government has not established administrative means to implement the ordinance, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Though none of the churches have closed since 2008, their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). The EPA, however, is also trying to gain official recognition.  

“Actually, this law of 2006 has come to light: people are condemned as criminals for the simple act of thinking and believing different,” the president of the EPA, Mustapha Krim, told Compass. “If we accept this [verdict], it means we are condemned to close our churches one after the other.”

Krim confirmed that based on Ordinance 06-03, none of the churches have actual authorization to operate, nor can Christians speak about their faith to other Algerians.

“If they condemn our four brothers, they need to condemn the others,” he said.

In a sign of solidarity towards the men and to demand the abolition of Ordinance 06-03, dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse on the first hearing of the case on Sept. 26. Demonstrators carried banners that read: “Places of worship for everyone,” “Freedom of religion = freedom of conscience,” and “Abolition of the Law of 06-03-2006.”

Attending the re-opening of a Catholic church in Algeria’s capital on Monday (Dec. 13), Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdellah Ghlamallah told reporters, “Religious freedom in Algeria is a reality,” reported Reuters.

The Algerian Constitution gives the right to all citizens to practice their faith, although it declares Islam the state religion and prohibits institutions from behavior incompatible with Islamic morality.

Yahou said the judge did not pass a rightful judgment and thus had no real sense of justice.

“I think he has no conscience,” Yahou said. “We can’t be persecuted for nothing. He didn’t judge on the law and constitution, he judged on Islam. If he had read what is in the constitution, he wouldn’t have made this decision.”

The small church of Larbaa Nath Irathen, consisting only of a few families, had problems as early as 2008, when a group of Islamic radicals launched a petition against the church without success.  

Yahou told Compass that he knew very well the people in the village who brought charges against them, saying that they have tried to intimidate the church for the past few months in an effort to close it down.

“These are Islamists, and I know them in this village,” Yahou said.

Tizi Ouzou is part of Kabylie region, an area of Algeria where the country’s Protestant church has grown with relative freedom in recent years.

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

In October a court in the region acquitted two Christian men of eating during Ramadan in spite of a prosecutor’s demand that they be punished for “insulting Islam.”

In January Muslim neighbors ransacked and set on fire a church in Tizi Ouzou. In September a court in Tizi Ouzou ordered a local church to stop construction on an extension to its building and to tear it down.

Unofficial estimates of the number of Christian and Jewish citizens vary between 12,000 and 50,000, according to the state department’s report.

Report from Compass Direct News

Plinky Prompt: Ghosts. Fact or Fiction?

Ghost Rider

Ghosts – not sure how to answer this one. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts to the extent that they are shown in films and believed in popular culture. I do believe that spirits exists – in one form or another.

Powered by Plinky

Sterilize the unfit says British professor David Marsland

The mentally and morally “unfit” should be sterilized, Professor David Marsland, a sociologist and health expert, said this weekend. The professor made the remarks on the BBC radio program Iconoclasts, which advertises itself as the place to “think the unthinkable,” reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

Pro-life advocates and disability rights campaigners have responded by saying that Marsland’s proposed system is a straightforward throwback to the coercive eugenics practices of the past.

Marsland, Emeritus Scholar of Sociology and Health Sciences at Brunel University, London and Professorial Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Buckingham, told the BBC that “permanent sterilization” is the solution to child neglect and abuse.

“Children are abused or grossly neglected by a very small minority of inadequate parents.” Such parents, he said, are not distinguished by “disadvantage, poverty or exploitation,” he said, but by “a number or moral and mental inadequacies” caused by “serious mental defect,” “chronic mental illness” and drug addiction and alcoholism.

“Short of lifetime incarceration,” he said, the solution is “permanent sterilization.”

The debate, chaired by the BBC’s Edward Stourton, was held in response to a request by a local council in the West Midlands that wanted to force contraception on a 29-year-old woman who members of the council judged was mentally incapable of making decisions about childrearing. The judge in the case refused to permit it, saying such a decision would “raise profound questions about state intervention in private and family life.”

Children whose parents are alcoholics or drug addicts can be rescued from abusive situations, but, Marlsand said, “Why should we allow further predictable victims to be harmed by the same perpetrators? Here too, sterilization provides a dependable answer.”

He dismissed possible objections based on human rights, saying that “Rights is a grossly overused and fundamentally incoherent concept … Neither philosophers nor political activists can agree on the nature of human rights or on their extent.”

Complaints that court-ordered sterilization could be abused “should be ignored,” he added. “This argument would inhibit any and every action of social defense.”

Brian Clowes, director of research for Human Life International (HLI), told LifeSiteNews (LSN) that in his view Professor Marsland is just one more in a long line of eugenicists who want to solve human problems by erasing the humans who have them. Clowes compared Marsland to Lothrop Stoddard and Margaret Sanger, prominent early 20th century eugenicists who promoted contraception and sterilization for blacks, Catholics, the poor and the mentally ill and disabled whom they classified as “human weeds.”

He told LSN, “It does not seem to occur to Marsland that most severe child abuse is committed by people he might consider ‘perfectly normal,’ people like his elitist friends and neighbors.”

“Most frightening of all,” he said, “is Marsland’s dismissal of human rights. In essence, he is saying people have no rights whatsoever, because there is no universal agreement on what those rights actually are.”

The program, which aired on Saturday, August 28, also featured a professor of ethics and philosophy at Oxford, who expressed concern about Marland’s proposal, saying, “There are serious problems about who makes the decisions, and abuses.” Janet Radcliffe Richards, a Professor of Practical Philosophy at Oxford, continued, “I would dispute the argument that this is for the sake of the children.

“It’s curious case that if the child doesn’t exist, it can’t be harmed. And to say that it would be better for the child not to exist, you need to be able to say that its life is worse than nothing. Now I think that’s a difficult thing to do because most people are glad they exist.”

But Radcliffe Richards refused to reject categorically the notion of forced sterilization as a solution to social problems. She said there “is a really serious argument” about the “cost to the rest of society of allowing people to have children when you can pretty strongly predict that those children are going to be a nuisance.”

Marsland’s remarks also drew a response from Alison Davis, head of the campaign group No Less Human, who rejected his entire argument, saying that compulsory sterilization would itself be “an abuse of some of the most vulnerable people in society.”

Marsland’s closing comments, Davis said, were indicative of his anti-human perspective. In those remarks he said that nothing in the discussion had changed his mind, and that the reduction of births would be desirable since “there are too many people anyway.”

Davis commented, “As a disabled person myself I find his comments offensive, degrading and eugenic in content.

“The BBC is supposed to stand against prejudicial comments against any minority group. As such it is against it’s own code of conduct, as well as a breach of basic human decency, to broadcast such inflammatory and ableist views.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

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

‘Pinpricks’ of Truth Making Way into North Korea

Citizens increasingly enlightened about world’s worst violator of religious freedom.

DUBLIN, April 26 (CDN) — As refugees from North Korea and activists from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) gather in Seoul, South Korea this week to highlight human rights violations in the hermit kingdom, there are signs that North Korean citizens are accessing more truth than was previously thought.

A recent survey by the Peterson Institute found that a startling 60 percent of North Koreans now have access to information outside of government propaganda.

“North Koreans are increasingly finding out that their misery is a direct result of the Kim Jong-Il regime, not South Korea and America as we were brainwashed from birth to believe,” Kim Seung Min of Free North Korea Radio said in a press statement. The radio station is a partner in the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), which is holding its annual North Korea Freedom Week (NKFW) in Seoul rather than Washington, D.C. for the first time in the seven-year history of the event.

“We set out to double the radio listenership of 8 or 9 percent, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have access to information,” said NKFC Co-Chair Suzanne Scholte. She described the flow of information as “pinpricks in a dark veil over North Korea. Now those pinpricks are becoming huge holes.”

The radio station now air-drops radios into North Korea and broadcasts into the country for five hours a day, adding to information gleaned by refugees and merchants who cross the border regularly to buy Chinese goods.

In recent years the government has been forced to allow a limited market economy, but trade has brought with it illegal technology such as VCR machines, televisions, radios and cell phones that can detect signals from across the border. Previously all televisions and radios available in North Korea could only receive official frequencies. 

“The government hasn’t been able to stamp out the markets, so they begrudgingly allow them to continue,” Scholte confirmed. “This means North Koreans aren’t relying solely on the regime anymore.”

Holding the annual event in Seoul this year sends a significant message, Scholte told Compass.

“This is a spiritual conflict as well as a physical one – some people didn’t want us to call it freedom week,” she said. “But we’re making a statement … God gives us freedom by the very nature of being human and North Koreans are entitled to that too.”

All people say they would never allow the World War II holocaust to be repeated, Scholte said, “but this is a holocaust, a genocide. I firmly believe we will be judged if we fail to intervene.”

The coalition hopes this week’s event will empower the 17,000 strong North Korean defectors in South Korea, awaken the consciousness of the world about human rights conditions in North Korea, and inform all who are suffering in North Korea that others will “work together until the day their freedom, human rights and dignity are realized,” Scholte said in the press statement.

As part of the week’s activities, the coalition will send leaflets into North Korea via balloon stating in part, “In the same year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, Kim Il-Sung was ensuring that you wouldn’t have any of those rights.”

Religious freedom in particular is almost non-existent. The only accepted belief is Juche – an ideology that strictly enforces worship of the country’s leaders.

“The regime is a perversion of Christianity,” Scholte told Compass. Juche has a holy trinity just as Christianity does, with Father Kim Il-Sung, son Kim Jong-Il, and the spirit of Juche said to give strength to the people.

“Kim Il-Sung is God; a real God can’t replace him,” a former North Korean security agent confirmed in David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

While four churches exist in the capital, Pyongyang, experts believe these are largely showpieces for foreign visitors.

The government has allowed token visits from high-profile foreign Christians such as Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who preached at Bongsu Protestant church in Pyongyang in August 2008; and two U.S. Christian bands, Casting Crowns and Annie Moses, attended and won awards at the Spring Friendship Arts Festival in April 2009.

Worship outside limited official venues is simply not tolerated, giving North Korea first place on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2010 World Watch List for persecution of Christians.

Ordinary citizens caught with a Bible or in a clandestine prayer meeting are immediately labeled members of the hostile class and either executed or placed in prison labor camps, along with three generations of their immediate family. Every North Korean belongs to either the “hostile,” “wavering” or “core” class, affecting privileges from food and housing to education and physical freedom, according to Hawke’s report.

There are no churches outside the capital, but the regime in 2001 estimated there were 12,000 Protestants and 800 Catholics in North Korea. In July 2002 the government also reported the existence of 500 vaguely-defined “family worship centers” catering to a population of approximately 22.7 million, according to a September 2009 International Religious Freedom report issued by the U.S. State Department.

By contrast, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in July 2009 put the estimate at 30,000 Christians, some NGOs and academics estimate there may be up to several hundred thousand underground Christians.

Uncertain Future

As North Korea celebrated the birthday of Kim Jong-Il on Feb. 16, rumors spread that the elderly leader, currently battling heart problems, had chosen third son Kim Jong-Eun as his successor.

Documents extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-Eun began circulating as early as November, according to the Daily NK online news agency. An official “education” campaign for elite officials began in January and was extended to lesser officials in March. One document obtained by the agency described the “Youth Captain” as being “the embodiment of Kim Il-Sung’s appearance and ideology.”

“Kim picked this son because he’s ruthless and evil,” Scholte said, “but I don’t think they’re quite ready to hand over to him yet. There is an uncertainty, a vulnerability.”

Scholte believes this is the ideal time to “reach out, get information in there and push every possible way.”

“There are many double-thinkers among the elite,” she explained. “They know the regime is wrong, but they have the Mercedes, the education for their kids and so on, so they have no incentive to leave.”

The coalition is trying to persuade South Korea to establish a criminal tribunal, she said.

“North Koreans are actually citizens of South Korea by law,” she said. “We have to let these guys know there’s going to be a reckoning, to create a good reason for them not to cooperate [with authorities].”

Those in other countries have an obligation too, Scholte concluded. “When people walk out of the camps, it will haunt us. They’ll want to know, ‘What were you doing?’ We will be held accountable.”

Article 26 of North Korea’s constitution declares that the people have freedom of religion. The organizers of this year’s freedom week fervently hope that this declaration will soon become a reality.


The Cross at the Border: China’s Complicity in Refugees’ Suffering

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) estimate anywhere from 30,000 to 250,000 refugees from North Korea are living in China, either in border areas or deeper inland. Few are Christians when they emerge from North Korea, but the whispered advice among refugees is to “head for a cross,” signaling a Chinese church that may assist them, according to a February 2009 National Geographic report.

Since China will not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to border areas, Chinese Christians work with Christian NGOs to provide an “underground railroad” moving refugees via several routes to safety, most often in South Korea.

Chun Ki-Won, director of Christian NGO Durihana, admits that some of the refugees adopt Christianity to win favor with their rescuers, but others retain and strengthen their faith on arrival in South Korea.

China insists that the refugees are economic migrants and pays police a bounty to arrest and return them to North Korea. On arrival, North Korean officials pointedly question the refugees about contact with Chinese Christians or Christian NGOs. If any contact is admitted, execution or imprisonment is likely, according to David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

As one refugee told Hawke, “Having faith in God is an act of espionage.”

Still others choose to return to North Korea with Bibles and other Christian resources at great risk to themselves. For example, officials in June 2009 publicly executed Ri Hyon-Ok, caught distributing Bibles in Ryongchon, a city near the Chinese border, South Korean activists reported.

China remains impervious to the refugees’ plight.

“China fears being flooded by refugees if they show compassion,” said Suzanne Scholte, co-chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition. “But refugee flows aren’t going to collapse the [North Korean] regime. If that was going to happen, it would have happened already during the famine, so their argument doesn’t hold water.”

She added that North Koreans don’t want to leave. “They leave because of Kim Jong-Il,” she said. “Those [North Korean refugees] in South Korea want to go back and take freedom with them.”

Two U.S. Christians entered North Korea in recent months with the same goal in mind. Robert Park, an evangelical Christian missionary, crossed the border on Dec. 25 with a letter calling for Kim Jong-Il to resign.

Officials immediately arrested Park, according to the regime’s Korean Central News Agency. He was later sentenced to eight years of hard labor but released in late February after making what many experts believe was a forced confession.

Fellow activist Aijalon Mahli Gomes entered North Korea on Jan. 25, the same news agency reported. Officials sentenced Gomes to nine years of hard labor and fined him 70 million new Won (US$518,520). At press time Gomes remained in detention.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Why Bhutan’s Royalists Fear Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threat from Within

Bhutanese officials are no strangers to religious conflict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarchy and Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground

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.

Ambiguous Laws

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