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 http://www.compassdirect.com, “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.
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
Derogatory remarks, beatings, pressure to convert to Islam drive two girls to drop out.
SARGODHA, Pakistan, May 19 (CDN) — Muslim teachers at a girls school here have derided Christian students for their faith, beat them, pressured them to convert to Islam and forced them to clean school bathrooms and classrooms after class hours, according to area Christians.
Muslim teachers at Government Higher Secondary School in village No. 79-NB (Northern Branch), Sargodha, in Punjab Province, have so abused Christian students that two of the dozens of Christian girls at the school have dropped out, said a 16-year-old student identified only as Sana.
“Christian students are teased and mocked by radical Muslim, female teachers from the start of the school day to the end,” she said. “Due to the contemptuous behavior on religious grounds by the fanatical Muslim principal and staff, Christian students feel dejected, depressed and frustrated. I am totally broken-hearted because of the intolerance and discrimination.”
Rebecca Bhatti, a 16-year-old grade 10 student, told Compass she left the government school because her main teacher, along with an Islamic Education & Arabic Language teacher identified only as Sumaira, a math teacher identified only as Gullnaz, other Muslim teachers and Ferhat Naz, the principal, would call Christian girls in to the staff room at recess and demand that they polish their shoes or wash their undergarments and other clothes.
“If any girl turned down the orders of any of the Muslim teachers, they were punished,” Bhatti said as she spilled tears. “The Muslim school teachers ordered us to wash lavatories daily and clean the school compound and classrooms, even though there is staff to keep the school clean.”
She said that the school also denied Christian students certificates of completion when they had finished their studies.
“This was to bar Christian students from gaining admission to other educational institutions or continue their education,” she said.
The principal of Christian Primary School in the village, Zareena Emmanuel, said that Naz and Sumaira subjected Christian students to beatings. Emmanuel also said that Muslim teachers at the secondary school derided Christian students for their faith.
“I regret that it is the only government school of higher education for girls at the village and adjoining areas,” Emmanuel said, “and therefore Christian girls have to experience such apathy, religious discrimination and bitterness each day of their schooling, which is supposed to be a time of learning and imagination.”
Christian residents of the village said they have been longing to bring abuse at the school to light. The Rev. Zaheer Khan of Maghoo Memorial United Presbyterian Church and Emmanuel of the primary school have asked education department officials of Sargodha Region to investigate, he said.
Khan also said that Naz and Muslim teachers including Gullnaz, Sumaira and Muzammil Bibi have treated Christian students contemptuously and have frequently asked them to convert to Islam.
“The attitude of the Arabic & Islamic Education teacher, Sumaira, toward the Christian students is beyond belief,” he said, “as she has forced the Christian girls to wash toilets, classrooms and clean the school ground, saying they must not be hesitant to do sanitation work because it’s the work of their parents and forefathers handed down to them.”
Questioned about the abuses, Naz told Compass that she would immediately take note of such incidents if they had occurred.
“Any of the teachers held responsible of forcing Christian students convert to Islam will be punished according to the departmental rules and regulations,” Naz said. “A few Christian girls have abandoned their education because of their domestic problems, but even then I’ll carry out a departmental inquiry against the accused teachers, and no one will be spared if found guilty.”
Naz said the inquiry would focus especially on the accusations against Sumaira, Muzammil and Gullnaz.
Protesting residents gathered outside Naz’s office last week said she had no real intention of investigating the alleged abuses; some said she was making weak excuses to defend her staff members. They urged an independent investigation of Sumaira, Gullnaz, Muzammil and Naz.
“This cannot be tolerated, as it’s a matter of their girls’ careers and education,” said one protestor.
Noureen Austin, a 19-year-old Christian student in grade 12, described the school environment as discriminatory, depressed, gloomy and agitated.”
“No Christian student can get a quality education there,” she said. “Most of the school faculty are fanatical female Muslims who would not waste any chance to target Christian girls because of their belief in Christ.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Throngs fear site would be used as Christian school or church.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 4 (CDN) — Hundreds of people calling themselves the Muslim Community of the Puncak Route last week burned buildings under construction belonging to a Christian organization in West Java Province.
Believing that a church or school building was being built, the mob set fire to the Penabur Christian Education Foundation’s unfinished guest house buildings in Cibeureum village of Cisarua sub-district, Bogor Regency, on April 27. They also burned a watchman’s hut and at least two cars belonging to foundation directors.
A leader of the mob who identified himself only as Tabroni told Compass that local residents did not want a Christian worship center or Christian school in the predominantly Muslim area of Cibeureum known as Kongsi.
“We found that there is an effort to Christianize through the construction of a school and a Christian place of worship,” Tabroni said. He claimed that the foundation had broken a promise to build only a guest house, not a school and a place of worship.
A foundation spokesperson identified only as Mulyono denied that it was building a school or a place of worship. Mulyono added that the guest house, a term synonymous with “conference center” in Indonesia, will be used for education and training.
“It is not true that we were building a school or a place of worship,” Mulyono told Compass.
The spokesperson said the foundation had received building permits in June of 2009. An official identified only as Nuryadi of the Bogor Regency office confirmed that all of permits for a guest house and use of the land had been granted in June 2009.
The mob destroyed buildings being constructed on 2.5 hectares (6.18 acres) of land.
A consultant said the Penabur foundation has been building Icharius Guest House since February and had expected to see it completed in August.
Suspicions that a Christian school and a place of worship were being built started almost immediately, as a worship service accompanied the laying of the cornerstone.
Cisarua District Officer Bambang Usada said this led to misunderstanding.
“We had agreed that a guest house was to be built,” he said. “Maybe they though it was going to be a church.”
Bogor Police Chief Tomex Kurniawan agreed, saying local residents were never satisfied with explanations of the buildings’ purposes. Penabur officials had explained that there would be no house of worship and that a guest house was being constructed with permission of the Bogor government.
“We had mediation meetings, but the people were never satisfied,” Kurniawan said. “We are now digging for more information for our investigation. There have been property losses, and someone is responsible.”
Dissatisfaction and the attendant religious intolerance among local residents were evident. The local block captain, who identified himself only as Rahmat, said he never accepted that district and regency officials had granted permission for the building.
“They were not building a guest house, but a place of worship,” Rahmat told Compass.
At press time police had no suspects for the attack. They have gathered information from 14 people, including construction workers, and they are guarding the building site against further incidents.
Construction has been suspended, also as a precautionary measure.
“We are waiting for a more conducive atmosphere,” Mulyono said.
The Penabur Foundation was founded in 1952 under the name the West Java Chinese Kie Tok Kauw Hwee Education Foundation. On March 21, 1989, the name was changed to the Penabur Christian Education Foundation. It runs approximately 60 schools across Indonesia.
Report from Compass Direct News
Officials expel them from village; elsewhere, pastor dragged behind motorbike.
HO CHI MINH CITY, April 1 (CDN) — Suffering severe abuse from villagers and local Vietnamese officials, Hmong Christian Sung Cua Po fled into the forest with his family on March 19.
An expulsion order had been issued to his family, an area Christian leader said.
Since Compass reported on Jan. 18 that Po, who embraced Christianity in November, received some 70 blows to his head and back after local officials in northwest Vietnam’s Dien Bien Province arrested him on Dec. 1, 2009, he suffered physical attacks by police of Nam Son Commune on Feb. 10 and the confiscation of his motorbike.
The Christian leader said that police have threatened that if he did not recant they would beat him till only his tongue was intact.
Around the Lunar New Year in mid-February, Po had an altercation with his father over offerings to family ancestors. Hmong Christians see no continuity between the old worship of ancestral spirits and their new faith in Jesus; for them it a spiritual power encounter with no possibility of compromise, and Po held fast to his allegiance to Christ, refusing to sacrifice to his ancestors.
On Feb. 20, Nam Son district police were authorized by Dien Bien Dong district authorities to demolish Po’s house if deemed necessary. On Feb. 21, community members backed by police confiscated 40 sacks of paddy rice, the family’s one-year supply. The villagers also took all cooking and eating utensils from the family.
Pressure against Po, a member of the Sung clan that has long been resistant to Christianity, comes both from traditionalists in his ethnic community and the government, though the government officials have tried to hide their involvement. Primarily hostile toward the Po family have been Officer Hang Giang Chen of the Dien Bien district police and Officer Sung Boua Long of the Nam Son Commune police.
A source close to Po reported that local authorities and villagers tore down the family’s house on March 14. On March 19 the dispossessed Po couple fled into forest with their three children. Their relatives and community members say they do not know where they are. If previous experience holds true, they were likely given refuge by some of the many Christians in the region.
The same source reported that a foreign delegation visited the village on March 25 asking about Sung Cua Po. No Christians were allowed to meet the delegation. The source added that police had been there earlier to coach all villagers to say there was no government involvement in the mistreatment of the Po family and had issued dire threats for non-compliance.
Such antagonism has continued even though several western governments have raised the issue of the persecution of the Po family with high central government officials.
“The only conclusion one can draw,” said one knowledgeable Vietnam source, “is that the central government is either unwilling or unable to intervene and enforce the published national standards for religious tolerance.”
A Christian leader in the area told Compass yesterday that earlier this week authorities had burned 14 houses of Christians in another commune in Dien Bien Dong district, and that he was trying to arrange shelter for the affected families. The leader said the authorities of Dien Bien Dong district completely exempt themselves from Vietnam’s laws on religion and suffer no reprimand from above.
After Po was first detained on Dec. 1, Dien Bien Dong District and Na Son Commune police and soldiers led by policeman Hang A Senh took him and his wife to the Na Son Commune People’s Committee office after police earlier incited local residents to abuse and stone them and other Christian families. After Po and his wife were beaten at 1 a.m. that night, he was fined 8 million dong (US$430) and a pig of at least 16 kilos.
In Phu Yen Province in the south of Vietnam, religious intolerance was also on display as local police dragged a pastor behind a motorbike, Christian leaders reported.
Village police summoned Y Du, a 55-year-old pastor also from the Ede ethnic group, to a police station for questioning on Jan. 27. While driving his motorbike to the station, Pastor Du was stopped by village police who chained his hands together and then attached the chain by rope to his motorbike.
Christian sources said they forced Pastor Du to run behind the motorbike that they had commandeered, and he fell over many times, dragged along the ground. He was beaten and forced to keep running.
Local villagers at Hai Rieng witnessed what was happening and, fearing for the pastor’s life, shouted to the police to stop, the Christian leaders said. Du was then carried to the police station and was incarcerated in Phu Lam prison, Phu Lam district, Phu Yen Province. No formal charges were brought against him.
Local police subsequently visited his wife at their home, looking for evidence of illegal activity, Christian leaders reported. The officers said they suspected ties with organizers of demonstrations against confiscation of minority land and lack of religious freedom that were held six years ago.
Christian leaders said the police officers tried to bribe Pastor Du’s wife to renounce her Christian faith, saying, “If you renounce your faith, we will build you a new house and give you rice.” The family is poor and lives in a bamboo house. She replied, “I would rather die than renounce my faith.”
In mid-February, local police told Pastor Du’s wife that they could not find anything with which to charge her husband. But they said they continued to hold him because he refused to denounce the leader of a Bible school in Dak Lak Province, Pastor Mai Hong Sanh. Pastor Du was regularly beaten, Christians leaders reported.
Another evangelist, Pastor Y Co also from the Ede ethnic group, had also been held at Phu Lam prison, Phu Lam district, Phu Yen Province in the same conditions, they said. Pastor Du and Pastor Co had the opportunity to be released if they had signed "confessions," but they refused to do so, especially as they are not fluently literate in Vietnamese.
Both Pastor Du and Co are evangelists with the Vietnam Good News Mission Church.
Report from Compass Direct News
Assault on community center, church, homes leaves 24 Copts wounded.
ISTANBUL, March 17 (CDN) — A mob of enraged Muslims attacked a Coptic Christian community in a coastal town in northern Egypt last weekend, wreaking havoc for hours and injuring 24 Copts before security forces contained them.
The violence erupted on Friday (March 12) afternoon after the sheikh of a neighborhood mosque incited Muslims over a loudspeaker, proclaiming jihad against Christians in Marsa Matrouh, in Reefiya district, 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Alexandria, according to reports.
The angry crowd hurled rocks at the district church, Christians and their properties, looted homes and set fires that evening. The mob was reportedly infuriated over the building of a wall around newly-bought land adjacent to the Reefiya Church building. The building, called al Malak al Khairy, translated Angel’s Charity, also houses a clinic and community center.
“I was very surprised by the degree of hatred that people had toward Christians,” said a reporter for online Coptic news source Theban Legion, who visited Reefiya after the attack. “The hate and the disgust were obvious.”
The attack was a rarity for a northern coastal resort town in Egypt; most tensions between Copts and Muslims erupt in southern towns of the country.
According to a worker building the wall around the newly-bought plot, local Sheikh Khamis along with a dozen “bearded” men accused the church and workers of blocking a road early on Friday, staff members of Watani newspaper said.
Worried that the dispute could erupt into violence, one of the priests ordered the workers to take the wall down.
The governor of Marsa Matrouh approved the building of the church center and granted a security permit to conduct religious services in 2009.
Following afternoon mosque prayers, Sheikh Khamis rallied neighborhood Muslims, gathering more than 300 people. The mob broke into groups, attacking the church and nearby houses of the Coptic Christian community. There are nearly 2,000 Coptic Christians in Reefiya.
Around 400 Copts fled into the church building while the rioting mob looted and destroyed 17 houses, 12 cars and two motorcycles, according to Watani.
Local security forces were unable to contain the attack and called-in back up from nearby Alexandria. At nearly 1:30 a.m. on Sunday (March 14) they managed to contain the crowd and let the Christians out of the church.
Police arrested 16 young Christian men among those who were inside the church building, according to Watani. Later, four of them who were released because they were underage told reporters that security forces beat them. Police also arrested 18 of the assailants.
Some of the attackers and security forces were also wounded in the altercation. Of the wounded Copts, two were reportedly rushed to a hospital in Alexandria in critical condition. Sobhy Girgis, 33, was taken to Alexandria’s Victoria Hospital for internal bleeding in the kidney from injuries sustained from rocks the crowd threw at him, and Mounir Naguib, 41, was treated for multiple stab wounds, according to Watani.
Naguib, a teacher, said he was accosted while on his way to the Angel’s Charity building, with a knife-wielding member of the mob asking him if he was a Christian. When he said he was, the Muslim told him to convert to Islam by pronouncing the two testimonies of the Muslim faith (that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger).
“When I refused, he stabbed me in the thigh and hit me on the head,” Naguib told Watani.
One Copt, Nabil Wahba, told of how his house was destroyed. Wahba said he came home at 6 p.m. to find around 40 men hurling stones at his house. At 9 p.m. they came back with clubs and iron pipes, ripping the windows open and throwing fireballs into the house.
“When we tried to put out the fire, they hurled stones at us, while others were pulling down the garden fence and setting the other side of the house aflame,” Wahba told Watani.
Security forces pulled Wahba and his sister out of his blazing house.
On the same day that violence erupted in Marsa Matrouh, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report denouncing Egypt’s legal system for not bringing people to justice for violent acts against Christians and their property.
According to the report, in the last year there have been more than a dozen incidents in which Coptic Christians have been targets of violence.
“This upsurge in violence and the failure to prosecute those responsible fosters a growing climate of impunity,” USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo states in the report.
Since 2002, Egypt has been on the USCIRF “Watch List” as a country with serious religious freedom violations, including widespread problems of discrimination, intolerance and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, according to the report.
Commenting on the Marsa Matrouh attack, the Theban Legion reporter stated that among the mob were members of Bedouin communities who are intolerant of plurality and diversity in society.
“The law of the land is supposed to be a civil law, and we would like to see a civil law applying to everybody,” he said.
Report from Compass Direct News
Designation on identification cards used to discriminate on basis of religion.
ISTANBUL, February 5 (CDN) — A European court on Tuesday (Feb. 2) ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of human rights.
Religious minorities and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion” section of their IDs blank.
The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar, president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against Christian converts.
“[Religion on the ID] can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and appropriate thing.”
Tanyar said the same principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has been negative.”
The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.
The court found in a 6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.
The presence of the “religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their personal convictions, the court ruled.
Although the government argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and impartiality.
In a statement on the verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.
“I don’t see the ECHR decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.”
The ECHR is independent of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and must be implemented.
A Step in the Right Direction
Human rights lawyers welcomed the decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy and secularism in Turkey.
“It is related to the general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible part of being Turkish.”
The lawyer said the judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population.
In 2000 Turkey’s neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.
“In Turkey, Greece or whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,” said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be very dangerous.”
It is not yet known what, if any, effect the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.
Because of its history, economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region. Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to change, even under court order.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries.
“It’s a serious problem from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis for discrimination.”
Stork said the identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.
“It’s not like the Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do that,’” Stork said.
Egypt in particular is notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually impossible.
Report from Compass Direct News
Mob succeeds in getting local official to shut down HKBP church in West Java.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 21 (CDN) — A moderate Muslim research institute focusing on interfaith issues in Indonesia reported 35 cases of government violations of religious freedom – including 28 against Christians – and 93 instances of community intolerance of churches in 2009.
The Wahid Institute issued a year-end report of violations that included the revocation of the building permit for the HKBP Cinere Church – later overturned in court – opposition to a Catholic Church in Purwakarta and an order forbidding worship by the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Bekasi, West Java.
The highest number of violations occurred in West Java, with 10 cases, including seven against Christians; next was East Java with eight, including four against Christians, followed by Jakarta Province with four (three against Christians). In Central Java, two of three religious violation cases were against Christians, and in West Nusa Tenggara, one of the three violations violated Christians’ rights.
Government infractions included closing churches and failing to intervene in mob actions. Police were cited in 18 cases, provincial governments in eight, village and sub-district governments in six cases each and courts in two incidents.
Just as government violations were highest in West Java, community intolerance there was also highest with 32 cases, of which 14 were against Christians. Next was Jakarta, where eight of 15 cases of community intolerance were against Christians, then East Java where six of 14 cases hurt Christians. In Central Java, Christians were the victims in five of the 13 cases of community intolerance.
In West Java, the root problem is the spread of hatred against religious groups, including Christians and Jews, according to the report.
While the reported violations of religious freedom were lower than in 2008, the issue of religious intolerance continued to grow during 2009, aided by legislative and presidential elections as religion is often used to gain votes in Indonesian elections, according to the study. The overall figure of 128 cases of violations of religious freedom by government or society in 2009 represents a drop from the 2008 figure of 234 cases, according to the Wahid Institute.
Yenny Zanuba Wahid, director of the institute, told Compass that the government has not considered freedom of religion an important issue that needed attention. As a result, the government has not addressed reports of intolerance even in the face of international pressure.
“The government has been timid to acknowledge violations of religious freedom, but these are real and are carried out directly by government bodies or indirectly as a result [of government] policies,” Wahid said.
Muslims make up 88.2 percent of Indonesia’s population of about 240 million people, with Protestant Christians making up 5.9 percent, Catholics 3.1 percent, Hindus 0.8 percent, Buddhists 0.2 percent, and other religions 0.2 percent.
In West Java, mob efforts to shut down the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Bekasi succeeded on Dec. 31 when the district officer issued a decree ordering a stop to all worship activities at the site of the church building under construction.
The decree ordered that the construction of the building stop, and that the structure not be used for worship until the building permit process was final. The district officer based his recommendation upon a 1990 rule regarding building permits in Bekasi.
Tigor Tambubolon, head of the church building committee, acknowledged that the building permit had not been formally granted even though the process had been under way since 2000.
“We already have the permission of the Jejalen citizens,” Tambubolon told Compass. “That’s why we were brave enough to hold Christmas Eve services.”
Last Christmas Eve hundreds of protestors demanding a halt to worship demonstrated against services at the site, where 279 Christians had gathered.
A New Year’s service scheduled to take place at the site moved to the office of the village head due to fears that protestors would become unruly. Police Chief Herry Wibowo said his officers guarded the church site at that time.
The Rev. Palti Panjaitan of Filadelfia HKBP told Compass that the church had been worshipping in the area since 2000 by meeting at various members’ homes. As the congregation grew, they rented a building combining a home and store in Vila Bekasi 2 Tambun.
“The local citizens demonstrated against our worship services,” said Panjaitan. “From there we moved to a member’s home in Jejalan village. We profited because the Jejalan citizens were very good.”
Eventually the church bought a piece of land there. A number of the community leaders and the village head gave their agreement to build the Filadelfia HKBP church there.
The Interfaith Harmony Forum of Bekasi district gave approval for the building with the stipulation that the church obey a joint ministerial decree revised in 2006 regarding construction of houses of worship. The building committee obtained signatures of 259 non-Christians endorsing the project, though the joint decree required only 60 signatures. Then the building committee wrote a formal request for a building permit.
Church elder Tambubolon, however, added that a sub-district officer collected signatures from citizens opposed to the construction of a house of worship in Jejalan. The total number of signatures is unknown, but the sub-district office sent a letter to the district officer rejecting the building permit.
Nevertheless, Tambubolon said, the church is not considering a lawsuit over the district officer’s decree.
“We are going to continue worshipping, because it is the right of every citizen,” he said. “If we are forbidden to worship even in the village office, we will continue to do so.”
Report from Compass Direct News