Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground

Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.

“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.

Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.

“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”

Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.

Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.

Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.

Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.

“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.

Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.

“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”


Hindu Nation

Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.

If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.

On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.

The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.

“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”

Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.

The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.

“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”

Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.

Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.

The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.

More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.  

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Officials Back Muslim Land-Grabbers, Christians Say

Senior district authorities accused of supporting desecration of 150 Christian graves.

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 9 (CDN) — Christians in south Punjab Province are accusing senior district officials of supporting local Muslims who allegedly demolished 150 Christian graves and desecrated holy relics – and are now threatening Christians seeking legal redress.

In the Kot Addu area of Muzaffargarh district, Waseem Shakir told Compass by telephone that an influential Muslim group last Nov. 6 took illegal possession of a 1,210-square yard piece of land designated as a Christian cemetery and set up shops on it. Official records state that the portion of land was allotted as a Christian cemetery, he said.

“Local Muslims demolished 150 Christians’ graves and desecrated the cross and biblical inscriptions on the graves in a bid to construct shops on the property,” said Shakir, a resident of Chak (Village) 518, Peer Jaggi Morr, Kot Addu. “Only five marlas [151.25 square yards] are all that is left for the Christians to bury their dead now.”

Shakir said that all Muzaffargarh area authorities, including the local politicians, were supporting the alleged land-grabbers even as Christians feared a mob attack.

“The situation has come to point where even the local police have warned their higher-ups that the tension could provoke a Gojra-type incident,” he said, adding that Muslim instigators were now openly trying to intimidate him and Boota Masih, who registered a case with police, into dropping the matter.

In Gojra on Aug. 1, 2009, Muslim hordes acting on an unsubstantiated rumor of blasphemy of the Quran – and whipped into a frenzy by local imams and banned terrorist groups – killed at least seven Christians, looted more than 100 houses and set fire to 50 of them. At least 19 people were injured in the melee.

Shakir said Christians had approached police and the district administration to register a case against the Muslims for desecrating their sacred relics and hurting religious sentiments, but authorities have shown little attention to their grievance. Masih registered the complaint on behalf of area Christians, but the station house officer of the Daira Deen Panah Police, Waseem Leghari, altered it to state that Muslims had only occupied a piece of the cemetery land, Shakir said.

“Leghari registered a case against the Muslims under Section 297 of the Pakistan Penal Code [trespass of a place for the dead], which is a bailable offense, despite the fact that a case under the blasphemy law should have been registered against the Muslims for desecrating the Christian holy relics,” Shakir said.

Police took no measures to arrest the 11 named suspects, he added.

“No one seems bothered over the desecration of our cross and biblical inscriptions,” Shakir said.

Section 297 of the penal code states, “Whoever, with the intention of wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person, or with the knowledge that the feelings of any person are likely to be wounded, or that the religion of any person is likely to be insulted thereby, commits any trespass in any place of worship or on any place of sculpture, or any place set apart for the performance of funeral rites or as a depository for the remains of the dead, or offers any indignity to any human corpse or causes disturbance to any persons assembled for the performance of funeral ceremonies, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

Shakir said that, besides the 150 demolished graves, the illegal occupants had thrown garbage on another 50 graves. The police’s indifferent attitude towards the Christian community had been hurtful, he said, and Christians had repeatedly taken up the issue with District Police Officer (DPO) Chaudhry Manzoor and District Coordination Officer Tahir Khurshid.

They did not take the issue seriously, Shakir said.

DPO Manzoor rejected the Christians’ accusations.

“It’s not as serious a case as they are portraying,” he told Compass. “The people who have built shops on the land are not illegal occupants but the real owners.”

He said Christians were furious because the shopkeepers put some of their belongings on the graves.

“No one has desecrated any Christian holy symbol, book or grave,” he said. “Any fears that the issue could lead to another Gojra are baseless.”

Manzoor said the matter would be resolved amicably.

Napolean Qayyum, leader of the Minorities Wing of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), told Compass that open desecration of the Christian symbols and places and the police’s alleged support of the culprits showed the prejudice of the Punjab government towards minority groups.

“An application regarding this incident is lying in the Punjab chief minister’s secretariat, but it seems the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s [PML-N] government in Punjab wants another Gojra-like incident to take place in Kot Addu,” he said, adding that it was curious that all major violence against Christians usually takes place when the PML-N is in power in the province.

Qayyum said that he had taken up the matter with the PPP leadership.

“It’s a case of blasphemy, and the culprits should have been rounded up under Section 295-A,” he said. “I have contacted Farahnaz Ispahani, the political adviser to President Asif Zardari, and she has assured me of the federal government’s support in this matter.”

He added that stern action against local police and administrative authorities was necessary to set an example for others.

Report from Compass Direct News

Nepal Christians Fight for Burial Rights

Nearly 200 graves face demolition.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, January 25 (CDN) — Three years after the death of a Christian who was a captain in the Nepal Army, his widow, Gamala Guide, faces fresh grief.

The grave of her husband, Narayan Guide, is threatened with destruction as authorities of Nepal’s most powerful Hindu temple are reclaiming the forested land where it is located.

“What kind of strange country is this that doesn’t allow its own citizens to rest in peace?” the 55-year-old recently asked leaders of the Christian community in Kathmandu. “Please do something to stop the desecration, or my husband will die a second death.”

At least 200 graves, many of them unmarked due to Christians’ fear of discovery and destruction, could share the same fate. The Pashupatinath Area Development Trust, the organization administering the Pashupatinath temple that dates back to the fourth century AD, has begun renovating the shrine as Nepal celebrates 2011 as its “tourism year” with the goal of attracting 1 million visitors. The temple has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.

“In the late 1980s, the government gave us 292 hectares of land to develop the Pashupatinath temple,” said Ram Saran Chimoria, director of the trust. “We have accordingly drawn up a five-year plan that will renovate the main shrine and beautify its surroundings. The forested land adjoining the temple will be used to grow plants considered sacred by Hindus.”

Chimoria said part of the forest is also meant to be used for Hindu burials.

“A Hindu sect called the Dashnami, which has 10 sub-groups under it, buries its dead here, as Muslims and Christians do,” he said. “Since Pashupatinath is a Hindu temple, the 10 sub-groups are allowed to bury their dead here. But other communities also began burying their dead here, first pretending to be the Dashnami and then clandestinely. This is against Hindu traditions, and the temple is seeking to reclaim what belongs to it. It is the responsibility of the government to allot burial grounds to non-Hindus, not the trust’s.”

The burial ground lies opposite Arya Ghat, a cremation ground at Pashupatinath, where bodies are burned on pyres according to Hindu tradition. Known as the Sleshmantak Forest, it is a steep and nearly inaccessible wooded tract where monkeys and foxes roam. Locals advise visitors not to wander into the forest alone, even during day time, for fear of robbers.

“I attended several burial rites there,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman of the Catholic Assumption Church of Kathmandu Valley. “They were all low-key. Many of the graves are unmarked to avoid detection. The burial ground is used as a garbage dumping site, and at times foxes dig up the buried bodies. There are also cases of bodies being dumped on top of one another.”

An increasingly angry Christian community, tired of petitioning the government for an official burial ground, is now seeking stronger measures.

“Nepal became secular in 2006, and two years later, we petitioned the prime minister, the culture minister and the top human rights agency in Nepal, saying that in a secular democracy Christians should have the same rights as others and should be given their own burial ground,” said C.B. Gahatraj, general secretary of a Christian committee formed to provide recommendations to parliament, which is drafting a new constitution. “We understand the temple’s position. But the state should understand ours too.”

The committee had identified forested land on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, in an area called Duwakot, and proposed that it be given to them.

“We would make it one of the most idyllic sites in Nepal,” said Gahatraj. “It would have gardens and would be an attractive destination for tourists as well. But so far, there has been no response from the state.”

Believing the time has come for stronger action, Christians plan to discuss the issue with 22 major parliamentary parties on Sunday (Jan. 30).

“At the meeting, we will present our case again,” Gahatraj said. “We also want the trust to suspend the demolition drive till we are given our own land. If there’s no result, we will internationalize our case by taking our problem to international rights organizations and the United Nations.”

As the first such public protest, on Feb. 15 at Maitighar Mandala, one of the most prominent areas of the capital, the Christian community will begin a “relay hunger strike.” Christians are also beginning the first-ever Christian census this year to ascertain their true position in society.

“We estimate there are about 2 million Christians now [out of a population of nearly 29 million],” Gahatraj said.  

Catholics, however, form a tiny fraction of the Christian community. Satyal assessed there were about 7,500 Catholics. In 2009, three women were killed at the Assumption Church when a militant underground organization planted a bomb there. All three had to be cremated.

“Land is a premium commodity in Kathmandu Valley,” said Anthony Sharma, Nepal’s first Catholic bishop. “When the living don’t have land, it is futile to seek land for the dead. We have accepted cremation for Catholics in Nepal in keeping with acceptance worldwide.”

But even the cremation is dogged by discrimination.

“The Arya Ghat cremation ground at Pashupatinath distinguishes between upper castes and lower castes,” the bishop said. “If Christians are taken there, they would be treated as lower castes. So we have organized our own cremation site in Teku [in a different part of the town].”

Madhav Kumar Nepal, who resigned as prime minister on June 30 but leads a caretaker government, was regarded as having a soft spot for Christians. After the attack on the Assumption church, he was among the first state officials to visit the injured in the hospital and kept his promise to bring the culprits to justice, with police managing to arrest the blast mastermind.

Nepal resigned last year under pressure by the largest opposition party, and since then the turbulent republic has remained under a powerless caretaker government, unable to make any major decision.

With the squabbling political parties unable to form a new government and a political deadlock spilling into its seventh month, there are now new fears about the prospective constitution, which is expected to consolidate the secular nature of the nation. The constitution was to have been completed last year, but as the bickering parties failed to accomplish the task, the deadline was extended to May 28.

The delay has enabled a spurt in activities of Hindus calling for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. If Nepal’s May deadline fails as well, Christians fear it could be impossible to obtain their own official burial site.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims Resume Building on Christian Graveyard in Pakistan

Hard-line cleric defies local officials’ order to stop construction.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, September 1 (CDN) — Muslims led by a hard-line cleric on Friday (Aug. 27) resumed building on a Christian cemetery in Mandi Bhawaldin, desecrating more graves in spite of a local government order to halt construction, according to the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA).

Radical Muslim cleric Mirza Abdul Ghani had built a mosque on the Christian graveyard off New Rasool Road in Mandi Bhawaldin after allegedly occupying the land 16 years ago, when area Christians were too intimidated to object, said Salamat Zia of APMA.

“No one could object to the construction of the mosque, as it is in the constitution of Pakistan that no religious worship place could be demolished,” said Zia. “Therefore all the Christians remained silent then.”

The cleric’s alleged desecration of more of the graveyard land around the Masjid Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat mosque began three months ago, Zia said.

“This Christian graveyard was earmarked before the Indo-Pakistan partition on Aug. 14, 1947,” Zia added, “and their forefathers were buried there.”

Zia, a local journalist and resident of the Muhalla Ghorra area in Mandi Bhawaldin, said it initially appeared that Ghani’s workers were building an addition to the mosque, as only pillars had been erected. Now Ghani’s builders have completed a basement as well as possibly some shops, with cement plaster now being applied to the new units.

On Aug. 6 Zia led a seven-member Christian delegation intending to meet with District Coordination Officer (DCO) Muhammad Amin Chaudhary, another district officer named Syed Shahbaz Hussain Naqvi and District Police Officer Dar Ali Khatak of Mandi Bhawaldin about the encroachments on the Christian graveyard and to discuss how the graves of their loved ones were being demolished and desecrated.

As DCO Chaudhary was on leave, Acting DCO Shahid Rana took their application and forwarded it to the District Officer of Revenue and Tehsil Officer of Regulations with directives to visit the site and demolish all encroachments except the Masjid Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat mosque, Zia said.

After inspecting the site, the administrative officers issued directives to stop the illegal encroachments, and for a few days the construction was halted, he said.

“But despite the stay orders of stopping construction, the Muslim men restarted construction over the Christian graves on Aug. 27,” Zia said.  

Khalid Gill, chief organizer of APMA in Punjab Province, said that Muslim leaders threatened Christians who objected to the construction.

“They threatened that in case Christians protested against the resumption of construction they would also carry out a protest rally against Christians, and Muslim clerics said Christians would be responsible for the consequences,” Gill said.

APMA has demanded that the government allocate land for a Christian graveyard equivalent to the area allegedly occupied by the Muslims.  

Local Urdu-language dailies in Mandi Bhawaldin have publicized the alleged encroachment on the Christian graveyard.

Report from Compass Direct News

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

Two Church of Christ in Nigeria Journalists Killed in Jos

Other Christians murdered in area that continues to be wracked by violence.

LAGOS, Nigeria, April 27 (CDN) — The killing of Christians in Jos, Plateau state in Nigeria continued over the weekend with two journalists and five other persons falling victim to Muslim youth gangs.

Nathan S. Dabak, an assistant editor at a newspaper of the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) called The Light Bearer, and Sunday Gyang Bwede, a reporter at the publication, were stabbed to death on Saturday (April 24) at Gado-Bako in Jos North Local Government Area along with an unidentified motorcyclist.

“The staff of the church were murdered in cold blood by some Hausa Muslim youths,” the Rev. Pandang Yamsat, president of COCIN, told Compass today. “This is clear because they have been using the hand phones of the deceased journalists and boasting that they are the ones that killed them.”

The young Muslim men have been boldly answering calls to the cell phones of the deceased journalists, he said; when a friend of Dabak called his cell phone number, an unknown voice responded, “We have killed all of them – you can do your worst!”

Dabak, 36, and the 39-year-old Bwede had left their office on Saturday morning and were on their way to interview local politician Bulus Kaze when they fell into the hands of young Muslim men, Yamsat said.

The church started a search for the two Christians that day but did not discover their bodies until about noon on Sunday at the mortuary of Jos University Teaching Hospital, he said. He added that the church was eagerly waiting for results of a police investigation.

“The security team of the church has been communicating with the police, but they are yet to make any headway on this unfortunate incident,” he said.

Burial of the slain journalists is scheduled for Friday (April 30).

In his statement on Monday (April 26), Yamsat lamented that “while efforts have been tailored towards the return of peace to the state by the military Special Task Force, it is regrettable that the state is confronted with a spate of killings.”

“The church is still mourning the death of its pastor and his wife killed in Boto, Bauchi state,” Yamsat said, in reference to the April 13 kidnapping and murder of the Rev. Ishaku Kadah, 48, and his 45-year-old wife Selina. “It is sad that it should again be left to face another brutal murder of two of their staff.”

The state branch of the Nigerian Union of Journalists also condemned the circumstances that led to the death of the two journalists, expressing deep concern over what it described as “a series of attacks on its members in recent times in the course of carrying out their legitimate duties.”

Four other Christians also were killed on Saturday (April 24) in the Dutse Uku district of Jos’ Nasarawa Gwom area in a revenge attack following the discovery of the corpse of a teenage Muslim who had been missing. Their names were not released at press time.

The four Christians reportedly died, three of them stabbed to death, when hundreds of Muslim youths rampaged throughout the area in protest.

Earlier, police reportedly exhumed eight bodies from shallow graves in a predominantly Christian village near Jos. The discovery of the bodies brought to 15 the number of corpses found in three days in an area fraught with Muslim aggression that has left hundreds of Christians dead.

Jos has become a flash-point for ethnic and religious tensions in Plateau state, which is located between Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north and Christian south. Previously hundreds of Christian villagers were struck with machetes and burned to death on March 7 in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat, three villages in Jos South and Barkin Ladi Local Government Areas.

On March 17, Muslim Fulani herdsmen assaulted two Christian villages in Plateau state, killing 13 persons, including a pregnant woman and children. In attacks presumably over disputed property but with a level of violence characteristic of jihadist method and motive, men in military camouflage and others in customary clothing also burned 20 houses in Byei and Baten villages, in the Riyom Local Government Area of the state, about 45 kilometers (29 miles) from Jos.

On Jan. 17, two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in an outbreak of violence in Jos triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church. Police estimated over 300 lives were lost in subsequent clashes, in which 10 church buildings were burned.

Report from Compass Direct News 

New Evidence Stalls Murder Trial in Malatya, Turkey

Defense lawyers’ absence also prolongs case that court wants closed.

MALATYA, Turkey, April 21 (CDN) — On the eve of three-year commemorations of the murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey, defense lawyers’ absence and new evidence kept a Malatya court from concluding the case here on Thursday (April 15).

Two defense lawyers excused themselves from the hearing, rendering the judges unable to issue a verdict to the five defendants charged with the murders of three Christians in Malatya on April 18, 2007. Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske, who worked at a publishing house that distributed Christian material in this southeastern Turkish city, were found murdered three years ago.

At Thursday’s hearing, prosecuting lawyers presented a 28-page detailed request that the Malatya case be joined to a plot called Cage Plan, believed to be part of Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found a year ago in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 named naval officers, termed as “operations” the murders of the three Christians in Malatya, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andreas Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos. The aim of the Cage Plan was to destabilize the government by showing its inability to protect Turkey’s minority groups.

Last week newspapers reported that the Cage Plan, aimed at Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, not only contained a list of names of Protestant Christians who would be targeted, but also named some of their children.

Judges will announce a decision on whether to combine the Malatya murders with the Cage Plan at the next hearing, scheduled for May 14. Hearings for the Cage Plan are expected to begin on June 15.

“If you ask me, unfortunately at this exact moment we are exactly where we started,” said prosecuting lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “I’m not talking about public awareness. In terms of public awareness, of course our contribution is something substantial. But in terms of evidence and exposing the real network, we couldn’t get anywhere.”

Judges also decided to call a new witness in May. Burak Dogru, a convict serving time in Sivas, wrote a letter to the court accusing suspect Varol Bulent Aral of organizing the murders and offering him money to kill the three Christians.

“When I refused the offer, he told me to forget what I knew, otherwise I would not see the sunlight again,” he wrote in his letter, reported the Hurriyet Daily News.

In the last court hearing two months ago, the court rejected the prosecuting attorney team’s appeal that the Malatya murders be joined to the Ergenekon file, despite a police report showing links between the two cases.

Cengiz said he believes that the Malatya prosecutor is missing an opportunity to collect more evidence that could connect the Malatya murders to the Ergenekon case.

“The Ergenekon prosecutor is drowning in the files,” said Cengiz. “This [Malatya] prosecutor has enough time and resources because he is in a position to have direct contact with first-hand evidence. But I think he is intimidated and is just trying to get rid of the case as soon as possible. This case is a hot potato for the prosecutor, and he just wants to throw it away as soon as possible.”

In February’s hearing, prosecutors detailed accusations against the five young men accused of slaughtering the Christians – Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim – and demanded three consecutive life sentences for each of them if convicted. The five men are charged with murder, being part of a terrorist organization, holding citizens against their will and stealing.

“We may not have proved that this case is linked to Ergenekon and other shadowy networks,” said Cengiz. “But I think we convinced everyone in Turkey that this murder was not committed by [just five men]. We may not convict them, the network, before the court, but we already convicted them in the eyes of the public. I wish, of course, that we could also do that before the law. But at this stage this evidence and this file doesn’t seem to me capable of doing this.”

Graveyard Memorials

In churches and at various memorial services on Sunday (April 18), Christians around Turkey commemorated the deaths of the three slain men.

Scores of people came to the graves of Aydin in Izmir, Tilmann in Malatya and Yuksel in Elazig, an hour northeast of Malatya, to commemorate the deaths. The Malatya murders have become a milestone for the Turkish church, which is also eager for closure on the murder case and justice for those responsible.

“For the church, it’s another one of those events in life which we don’t understand but entrust it to the hands of a loving God who we believe in,” said Zekai Tanyar, chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey. “I think one aspect is that the church in Turkey said this does not pull us away from the Lord; we continue to follow Him. It’s probably brought in sort of a depth in some ways, and it has certainly brought in awareness from the worldwide church, and therefore more prayer for Turkey.”

Tanyar said that while churches want to see closure for the sake of the families who lost their loved ones, they also want “the truth, the real culprits and mindsets behind the killings to be revealed somehow. So in a sense, our prayer is that God who is the worker of miracles will work these two contradictory expectations out; a closure and an exposure at the same time.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Plot Targeting Turkey’s Religious Minorities Allegedly Discovered

CD indicates naval officers planned violence against non-Muslim communities.

ISTANBUL, December 16 (CDN) — ISTANBUL, December 16 (Compass Direct News) – Chilling allegations emerged last month of a detailed plot by Turkish naval officers to perpetrate threats and violence against the nation’s non-Muslims in an effort to implicate and unseat Turkey’s pro-Islamic government.

Evidence put forth for the plot appeared on an encrypted compact disc discovered last April but was only recently deciphered; the daily Taraf newspaper first leaked details of the CD’s contents on Nov. 19.

Entitled the “Operation Cage Action Plan,” the plot outlines a plethora of planned threat campaigns, bomb attacks, kidnappings and assassinations targeting the nation’s tiny religious minority communities – an apparent effort by military brass to discredit the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The scheme ultimately called for bombings of homes and buildings owned by non-Muslims, setting fire to homes, vehicles and businesses of Christian and Jewish citizens, and murdering prominent leaders among the religious minorities.

Dated March 2009, the CD containing details of the plot was discovered in a raid on the office of a retired major implicated in a large illegal cache of military arms uncovered near Istanbul last April. Once deciphered, it revealed the full names of 41 naval officials assigned to carry out a four-phase campaign exploiting the vulnerability of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious minorities, who constitute less than 1 percent of the population.

A map that Taraf published on its front page – headlined “The Targeted Missionaries” – was based on the controversial CD documents. Color-coded to show all the Turkish provinces where non-Muslims lived or had meetings for worship, the map showed only 13 of Turkey’s 81 provinces had no known non-Muslim residents or religious meetings.

The plan identified 939 non-Muslim representatives in Turkey as possible targets.

“If even half of what is written in Taraf is accurate, everybody with a conscience in this country has to go mad,” Eyup Can wrote in his Hurriyet column two days after the news broke.

The day after the first Taraf report, the headquarters of the Turkish General Staff filed a criminal complaint against the daily with the Justice Ministry, declaring its coverage a “clear violation” of the laws protecting ongoing prosecution investigations from public release.

Although the prime minister’s office the next day confirmed that the newly revealed “Cage” plot was indeed under official investigation, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Taraf’s public disclosure of the plan as “interfering” and “damaging” to the judicial process and important sectors of the government.

But when the judiciary began interrogating a number of the named naval suspects and sent some of them to jail, most Turkish media – which had downplayed the claims – began to accept the plot’s possible authenticity.

To date, at least 11 of the naval officials identified in the Cage documents are under arrest, accused of membership in an illegal organization. They include a retired major, a lieutenant colonel, three lieutenant commanders, two colonels and three first sergeants.

The latest plot allegations are linked to criminal investigations launched in June 2007 into Ergenekon, an alleged “deep state” conspiracy by a group of military officials, state security personnel, lawyers and journalists now behind bars on charges of planning a coup against the elected AKP government.

Christian Murders Termed ‘Operations’

The plot document began with specific mention of the three most recent deadly attacks perpetrated against Christians in Turkey, cryptically labeling them “operations.”

Initial Turkish public opinion had blamed Islamist groups for the savage murders of Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro (February 2006), Turkish Armenian Agos newspaper editor Hrant Dink (January 2007) and two Turkish Christians and a German Christian in Malatya (April 2007). But authors of the Cage plan complained that AKP’s “intensive propaganda” after these incidents had instead fingered the Ergenekon cabal as the perpetrators.

“The Cage plan demanded that these ‘operations’ be conducted in a more systematic and planned manner,” attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote in Today’s Zaman on Nov. 27. “They want to re-market the ‘black propaganda’ that Muslims kill Christians,” concluded Cengiz, a joint-plaintiff lawyer in the Malatya murder trial and legal adviser to Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches.

In the first phase of the Cage plot, officers were ordered to compile information identifying the non-Muslim communities’ leaders, schools, associations, cemeteries, places of worship and media outlets, including all subscribers to the Armenian Agos weekly. With this data, the second stage called for creating an atmosphere of fear by openly targeting these religious minorities, using intimidating letters and telephone calls, warnings posted on websites linked to the government and graffiti in neighborhoods where non-Muslims lived.

To channel public opinion, the third phase centered on priming TV and print media to criticize and debate the AKP government’s handling of security for religious minorities, to raise the specter of the party ultimately replacing Turkey’s secular laws and institutions with Islamic provisions.

The final phase called for planting bombs and suspicious packages near homes and buildings owned by non-Muslims, desecrating their cemeteries, setting fire to homes, vehicles and businesses of Christian and Jewish citizens, and even kidnapping and assassinating prominent leaders among the religious minorities.

Lawyer Fethiye Cetin, representing the Dink family in the Agos editor’s murder trial, admitted she was having difficulty even accepting the details of the Cage plot.

“I am engulfed in horror,” Cetin told Bianet, the online Independent Communications Network. “Some forces of this country sit down and make a plan to identify their fellow citizens, of their own country, as enemies! They will kill Armenians and non-Muslims in the psychological war they are conducting against the ones identified as their enemies.”

No Surprise to Christians

“We were not very shocked,” Protestant Pastor Ihsan Ozbek of the Kurtulus Churches in Ankara admitted to Taraf the day after the news broke.

After the Malatya murders, he stated, Christians had no official means to investigate their suspicions about the instigators, “and we could not be very brave . . . Once again the evidence is being seen, that it is the juntas who are against democracy who [have been] behind the propaganda in the past 10 years against Christianity and missionary activity.”

Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church also openly addressed the Cage plot, referring to recent incidents of intimidation against Christian and Jewish citizens in Istanbul’s Kurtulus and Adalar districts, as well as a previous raid conducted against the alumni of a Greek high school.

“At the time, we thought that they were just trying to scare us,” he told Today’s Zaman. Several of the jailed Ergenekon suspects now on trial were closely involved for years in protesting and slandering the Istanbul Patriarchate, considered the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy’s 300 million adherents. As ultranationalists, they claimed the Orthodox wanted to set up a Vatican-style entity within Turkey.

Last summer 90 graves were desecrated in the Greek Orthodox community’s Balikli cemetery in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul. The city’s 65 non-Muslim cemeteries are not guarded by the municipality, with their maintenance and protection left to Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities.

As details continued to emerge and national debates raged for more than a week over the Cage plan in the Turkish media, calls came from a broad spectrum of society to merge the files of the ongoing Dink and Malatya murder trials with the Ergenekon file. The Turkish General Staff has consistently labeled much of the media coverage of the Ergenekon investigations as part of smear campaign against the fiercely secular military, which until the past two years enjoyed virtual impunity from civilian court investigations.

According to Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, the long-entrenched role of the military in the Turkish government is an “obstacle” for further democratization and integration into the EU.

Report from Compass Direct News