Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says

Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.


Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News

Police in Sudan Aid Muslim’s Effort to Take Over Church Plot

With possibility of secession by Southern Sudan, church leaders in north fear more land grabs.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 25 (CDN) — Police in Sudan evicted the staff of a Presbyterian church from its events and office site in Khartoum earlier this month, aiding a Muslim businessman’s effort to seize the property.

Christians in Sudan’s capital city told Compass that police entered the compound of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) on Oct. 4 at around 2 p.m. and ordered workers to leave, claiming that the land belonged to Muslim businessman Osman al Tayeb. When asked to show evidence of Al Tayeb’s ownership, however, officers failed to produce any documentation, the sources said.

The church had signed a contract with al Tayeb stipulating the terms under which he could attain the property – including providing legal documents such as a construction permit and then obtaining final approval from SPEC – but those terms remained unmet, church officials said.

Church leader Deng Bol said that under terms of the unfulfilled contract, the SPEC would turn the property over to al Tayeb to construct a business center on the site, with the denomination to receive a share of the returns from the commercial enterprise and regain ownership of the plot after 80 years.

“But the investor failed to produce a single document from the concerned authorities” and therefore resorted to police action to secure the property, Bol said.

SPEC leaders had yet to approve the project because of the high risk of permanently losing the property, he said.

“The SPEC feared that they were going to lose the property after 80 years if they accepted the proposed contract,” Bol said.

SPEC leaders have undertaken legal action to recover the property, he said. The disputed plot of 2,232 square meters is located in a busy part of the heart of Khartoum, where it has been used for Christian rallies and related activities.

“The plot is registered in the name of the church and should not be sold or transfered for any other activities, only for church-related programs,” a church elder who requested anonymity said.

The Rev. Philip Akway, general secretary of the SPEC, told Compass that the government might be annoyed that Christian activities have taken place there for many decades.

“Muslim groups are not happy with the church in north Sudan, therefore they try to cause tension in the church,” Akway told Compass.

The policeman leading the officers in the eviction on Oct. 4 verbally threatened to shoot anyone who interfered, Christian sources said.

“We have orders from higher authorities,” the policeman shouted at the growing throng of irate Christians.

A Christian association called Living Water had planned an exhibit at the SPEC compound on Oct. 6, but an organization leader arrived to find the place fenced off and deserted except for four policemen at the gate, sources said.

SPEC leaders said Muslims have taken over many other Christian properties through similar ploys.

“We see this as a direct plot against their churches’ estates in Sudan,” Akway said.

The Rev. John Tau, vice-moderator for SPEC, said the site where Al Tayeb plans to erect three towers was not targeted accidentally.

“The Muslim businessman seems to be targeting strategic places of the church in order to stop the church from reaching Muslims in the North Sudan,” Tau said.

The unnamed elder said church leaders believe the property grab came in anticipation of the proposed north-south division of Sudan. With less than three months until a Jan. 9 referendum on splitting the country according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, SPEC leaders have taken a number of measures to guard against what it sees as government interference in church affairs.

Many southern Sudanese Christians fear losing citizenship if south Sudan votes for secession in the forthcoming referendum.

A top Sudanese official has said people in south Sudan will no longer be citizens of the north if their region votes for independence. Information Minister Kamal Obeid told state media last month that south Sudanese will be considered citizens of another state if they choose independence, which led many northern-based southern Sudanese to begin packing.

At the same time, President Omar al-Bashir promised full protection for southern Sudanese and their properties in a recent address. His speech was reinforced by Vice President Ali Osman Taha’s address during a political conference in Juba regarding the signing of a security agreement with First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit (also president of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan), but Obeid’s words have not been forgotten.

Akway of SPEC said it is difficult to know what will become of the property.

“Police continue to guard the compound, and nobody knows for sure what the coming days will bring,” Akway said. “With just less than three months left for the South to decide its fate, we are forced to see this move as a serious development against the church in Sudan.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Christians note increase in government harassment – some of it violent.

HANOI, Aug. 6 (Compass Direct News) – Local authorities in Vietnam have balked at registering house churches, contributing to a recent uptick in sometimes violent harassment of congregations.

Four police officers and two government officials broke up the Sunday morning worship service of a house church in Tran Phu Commune in Hanoi on July 26, announcing that it was illegal to worship and teach religion. The police chief of Tran Phu Commune in greater Hanoi, Dang Dinh Toi, had ordered the raid.

When Christians under the leadership of Pastor Dang Thi Dinh refused to sign a document admitting they were meeting illegally, an angry police officer shouted, “If I find you meeting here next Sunday, I will kill you all like I’d kill a dog!”

Officials had previously refused to grant the church’s application for registration. Pastor Dinh and the national leader of the Ecclesia Revival denomination, Pastor Vo Xuan Loan, appealed to commune authorities the following day – again trying to register the church according to the Prime Minister’s 2005 Special Directive Concerning Protestants.

The commune head angrily proclaimed, “There are absolutely no Christians in this commune!” and then shooed them away, church leaders reported.

In nearby Hung Yen province, an Agape Baptist house church led by Pastor Duong Van Tuan was raided several times in June (see “Police Attack House Churches, Jail Leaders,” June18). Since then Compass learned from Pastor Tuan that his wife Nguyen Thi Vuong was badly abused on June 21. A group of policemen roughed her up, and then two of them seized her by her arms and repeatedly banged her head into a wall, he said.

When she fainted, Pastor Tuan said, they dragged her out and dumped her in a nearby field. Fellow Christians took her to medical care. The church situation remains unresolved.

Also in the north, in Viet Thuan Commune of Thai Binh Province, commune police broke up a house church meeting of the Vietnam Good News Mission Church on July 25, seizing seven hymnals and summoning Pastor Bui Xuan Tuyen to the police station for interrogation. In a letter to his superiors, Pastor Tuyen complained of police cursing and scolding him.

They confiscated his motorbike and sent it to a distant district office. In spite of such pressure, he refused to write a confession for what they termed his “crimes.” He was held until 10 p.m. before being released to collect his motorbike.

Southern Troubles

The situation is not better in the south. On Friday (July 31) Vietnam Good News Mission Church Pastor Mai Hong Sanh was subjected to a public denunciation and trial reminiscent of 1950s-style communism in the town of Ea Hleo, in Dak Lak Province.

He was sentenced to three months of “local re-education” for expanding his house without permission and giving religious training without permission – both practically impossible for Christians to obtain – and “causing social division.” This was the government’s answer to his church’s aspirations and attempts to provide training for ethnic minority church workers at Pastor Sanh’s home.

As a result, he can go nowhere without prior permission and must submit to political indoctrination courses at the whim of local officials. About 120 people, mostly town officials and police, attended his “trial” – Pastor Sanh was not allowed to defend himself, and authorities marshaled people they said were members of another church to accuse him, Christian sources said.

On Sunday (Aug. 2), some 15 policemen barged into a house church worship service in Xuan Thoi Thuong Commune, Hoc Mon district, Ho Chi Minh City. Brandishing batons and electric prods, police demanded that people leave immediately, according to local sources. Two new believers fled, they said, but most of the small congregation remained.

In a show of force, police officers also lined up outside the house and announced to curious neighbors who had gathered, “If anyone of you come to Chinh’s house and believe in his God, you will be in deep trouble,” according to the sources. Nguyen Van Chinh, leader of this independent house church, had been receiving such visits and threats by security forces since January.

Following the advice of local authorities, he had tried to register his house church as provided by Vietnamese law, but to no avail. At midnight on July 24, five police officers beat on his door demanding to be let in “to check IDs.”

Though he had submitted a registration application months before, they told him that “future zoning would not allow religious activities” and that he must permanently cease church meetings, sources said. When his congregation continued meeting, he was issued an “administrative fine,” which he appealed. His house church continued worshiping, leading to Sunday’s raid.

Church leaders said such incidents are representative of many others not reported for security reasons. Asked about the reasons for this uptick in harassment, church leaders strongly agreed that it is a firm though unwritten government policy to try to stop any expansion of Christianity. They said the harassment was so widespread that it must have approval from the top level of the central government.

All of the churches in this report tried to register according to supposedly clear government guidelines but have been denied without a legitimate reason.

Christian leaders also observed that Vietnam, having achieved its goal of getting off the U.S. religious liberty black list and won accession to the World Trade Organization, no longer worries much about international opinion. Others added that authorities, who retain a special suspicion of Christianity, are trying to suppress any expressions of the widely growing discontent with Vietnam’s government and the Communist Party.

At the same time, Catholics have been involved in larger clashes with authorities and with gangs of thugs widely believed to be hired and stirred up by the government. The government-backed gangs have beaten Catholic families. A fierce clash between Catholics and the government flared up in Dong Hoi City, in central Quang Binh province, on July 22. Police and hoodlums interfered with some 200 faithful trying to rebuild part of the bombed out Tam Toa Cathedral.

Reminding Catholics of the heavy-handed ending to church property claims in Hanoi last year, this incident quickly got the support of Catholics around the country. Some estimated that up to 500,000 Catholics nationwide participated in prayer vigils the following Sunday.

According to a long-time Compass source on Vietnam, the legally registered Protestant bodies are no more optimistic than their Catholic counterparts. Their leaders complain of unending bureaucratic blockages, harassment and interference.

“Overall, there is more pessimism today than four or five years ago, when people had hopes that new religion regulations might lead to steady improvement,” the source said.

“But it was not to be. Hence trust in government promises to improve religious liberty is at a very low ebb.”

Report from Compass Direct News