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


Hindu extremists beat Fr. Bernard Digal unconscious, leaving him bleeding in forest.

NEW DELHI, October 31 (Compass Direct News) – More than 3,000 people today attended the funeral in Bhubaneswar, Orissa of a Catholic priest who died on Tuesday (Oct. 28) from injuries sustained in anti-Christian violence that began in August.

Father Bernard Digal died in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, after an operation to remove a blood clot that developed in his brain due to a head injury from Hindu extremists attacking him on Aug. 25-26 in Kandhamal district, Orissa state. He was 46.

“He was smashed like a pulp,” Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, told Compass. “Because of the hate campaign of the [Hindu extremist] Sangh Parivar, the attackers lost their humanity and they became devils. Human beings can’t do what they have done.”

Archbishop Cheenath flew with Fr. Digal’s remains from Chennai to Orissa. Treasurer of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese in Orissa, Fr. Digal was visiting Sankarakhole parish when violence flared after Maoists killed Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and his disciples on Aug. 23.

Though police suspected Maoists from the start and the outlawed Marxists had claimed responsibility for the murders by Sept. 1, Hindu extremists bent on stoking anti-Christian flames continued to publicize that Christians had committed the crime – and have not stopped doing so.

Fr. Digal and Father Alexander Chandy, along with driver Sisir Pradhan, had taken shelter in a forest after a furious mob gathered outside the parish shouting slogans to kill all missionaries. After spending two days in the forest, they left the forest after Fr. Chandy became ill, moving from village to village.

They finally took refuge in a gutted church building in Dudukangia village. It had been torched and only its walls were standing. Legs swollen from walking, the refugees hoped that the enraged Hindu mobs would not come, Archbishop Cheenath said.

But the mob tracked them down by midnight, the archbishop said, and the clerics and driver ran. The crowd caught hold of Fr. Digal, who later told Archbishop Cheenath, “The mob shouted to each other to kill me. I pleaded for my life, but in vain.”

Stripping Fr. Digal naked, the Hindu mob then hit him with crowbars, iron rods, cycle chains, axes, sticks and other weapons, the archbishop said.

“They made a bonfire to burn him alive,” he said.

Seeing the fire, Fr. Digal managed to escape and run through some thorny bushes but was caught shortly after. The intolerant Hindus continued to hammer him until blood flowed from his head and he lost consciousness, and they left him for dead, Archbishop Cheenath said.

“He lay there on the wet ground and in the cool breeze for six to seven hours,” he added. Two villagers who found him in the forest carried him to Phulbani.

After much pressure, the state administration took Fr. Digal to a private hospital in Bhubaneswar, under security cover, and from there he was taken to Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai.

Discharged the first week of October after more than a month in the hospital, he reached Chennai, Tamil Nadu on Oct. 12 to visit his friend the vicar general of the archdiocese, who was undergoing a heart treatment in St. Thomas Hospital.

“Fr. Digal, after coming to Chennai, complained of high fever, blood in the urine and headache, and lastly his lungs collapsed,” Archbishop Cheenath told Compass.

Tests revealed he had a blood clot in the brain, and he underwent emergency surgery on Sunday evening (Oct. 26), reported The Times of India. The next day, he developed acute respiratory disorder and slipped into a coma.

Kandhmal district Police Chief Pravin Kumar told the national daily that he had no knowledge of the attack on Digal.

“So many incidents took place,” he reportedly said. “I don’t know whether there was any formal complaint pertaining to the attack on him. The police can begin an enquiry into the incident if a complaint is lodged even now.”

The Orissa state government has ordered a probe into the death of Fr. Digal, according to The Statesman News Service.

Fr. Digal was ordained on May 29, 1992. He was a native of the village of Tiangia in Kandhamal.


Orissa Rape Victim’s Plea

Two months after a nun was raped and paraded half-naked on Aug. 25 in the anti-Christian violence in Orissa, the victim went before the media in New Delhi on Oct. 24 and recounted her traumatic experience.

Her head and face covered by a black scarf, Sister Meena Lalita Barwa accused police of being “friendly” with the attackers and of not being responsive to her plea. Expressing her distrust in Orissa police for failing to protect her from those who raped her and other attackers, she demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.

The nun had gone into hiding after the attack but decided to come forward after the Supreme Court turned down her initial request for a CBI investigation last week.

Sr. Barwa read from her handwritten statement, giving stark details of the incident. Archbishop Cheenath accompanied her in the press conference.

“Two of them were holding my neck to cut off my head with an axe,” she said. “Others told them to take me out to the road; I saw Fr. [Thomas] Chellan also being taken out and being beaten.”

The 40 to 50 men were armed with axes, spades, crowbars, iron-rods and sickles, Sr. Barwa added. She said she was taken to a building full of ashes and broken glass and raped there, with the mob subsequently parading her and Fr. Chellan for about a half a kilometer. Upon reaching a market she asked about a dozen Orissa police to help her, she said, “but they did not move.”

“This hate campaign,” Archbishop Cheenath said, “is done under the very nose of the authorities, and they are mere spectators of these shameful deeds.”

At the Balliguda police station, the nun recounted, she told the inspector in charge and other government officers how she was attacked, raped, taken away from policemen and paraded half-naked, and how the officers did nothing as she wept bitterly. The inspector asked her, she said, if she knew “what will be the consequence” of filing a First Information Report (FIR).

On Aug. 26, as she was writing the FIR, the inspector told her to hurry and not write it in detail, she said.

“State police failed to stop the crimes, failed to protect me from the attackers, they were friendly with the attackers,” she said. “They tried their best that I did not register an FIR, not make complaints against police, [and] police did not take down my statement as I narrated in detail and they abandoned me half of the way. I was raped and now I don’t want to be victimized by the Orissa police. I want a CBI enquiry.”

Since her press conference, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has called for a detailed report on the sequence of events from the district collector and superintendent of police.  

Report from Compass Direct News