Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground


Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.

Banned

Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Forced Recantations of Faith Continue in Vietnam


New Christians in northwest violently compelled to return to ancestor worship.

HANOI, Vietnam, January 18 (CDN) — A Vietnamese man violently forced to recant his fledgling Christian faith faces pressure from authorities and clansmen to prove his return to traditional Hmong belief by sacrificing to ancestors next month.

Sung Cua 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, according to documents obtained by Compass. His wife, Hang thi Va, was also beaten. They live in Ho Co village.

Dien Bien Dong District and Na Son Commune police and soldiers led by policeman Hang A Senh took the Christian couple 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. His cell phone and motorbike were confiscated, according to the documents.

Christians Sung A Sinh and Hang A Xa of Trung Phu village were also beaten about the head and back and fined a pig of 16 kilos each so that local authorities could eat, according to the reports. The documents stated that the reason for the mistreatment of the Christians was that they abandoned “the good and beautiful” traditional Hmong beliefs and practices to follow Protestant Christianity.

Christian sources reported that on Dec. 15 police took Po and his wife to members of their extended family, who applied severe clan pressure on him to deny their faith. When police added their own threats, Po finally signed recantation documents.

“I folded – I signed when police threatened to beat me to death if I didn’t recant,” he said. “Then they would seize my property, leaving my wife a widow, and my children fatherless – without a home.”

Following Po’s written recantation, authorities subjected him to further family and clan pressure and “fines,” as well as rites to satisfy traditional Hmong spirits said to have become upset when he offended them by becoming a Christian.

Po faces the ultimate test to prove his recantation is sincere on Feb. 13, Lunar New Year’s Eve. He remains under severe threat, the documents report, unless he voluntarily offers sacrifices to his ancestors at that time.

The documentation of the forced recantations in northwest Vietnam indicates authorities are contravening Vietnam’s 2004/2005 public religion policy.

All three men had received a summons dated Dec. 11, 2009 to appear at the Na Son Commune Peoples’ Committee office at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 15 “to take care of business relating to following the Vang Chu religion.”  

The officials’ use of the Vang Chu religion in these documents was said to be significant. Vang Chu is a mythological Hmong savior who, it is believed, will unite and deliver the Hmong. For some time Vietnamese authorities have deliberately misnamed Protestantism as Vang Chu in order to give Christianity a threatening political character. Any real or imagined political opposition provides Vietnamese communists with a carte blanche excuse to apply repressive measures, Christian sources said.

One of the other Christians arrested, Xa, has received another summons handwritten by the chief of Trung Phu village, Hang A Po, “to solve the issue of the Vang Chu religion.” The summons ordered Xa to appear without fail at the home of village chief Po in mid-December and to bring sufficient food, including a 15-to-20 kilo pig, to feed everyone.

“Here is Vietnamese jungle justice on full display – show up at the home of an official to be tormented and bring plenty of food and liquor for your tormentors,” observed one source.

The summons purports to represent district and commune police who will be present, as well as the village chief.

“It is clear that in spite of public national policies outlawing forced recantation, to the contrary, Dien Bien government policy to force new Christian believers to recant is being vigorously implemented,” said one source.

This conclusion is consistent with other findings. In November 2009 religious liberty advocates acquired a Vietnamese language booklet entitled “Some Documents Concerning Religious Belief and Religion.” The 104-page document “For Internal Circulation” was published in November 2007 by the Dien Bien Province Department of Ethnic Minorities.

The collection of documents, including some marked “Secret,” clearly shows Dien Bien religion policies and directives relative to Protestants are different than the “new religion legislation” of 2004/2005. The Dien Bien documents reveal a secret “Guidance Committee 160” is overseeing repressive policies initiated before the new religion legislation of 2004/2005 that continue to guide officials.

“These events and findings in Dien Bien clearly show that the excuse given by our government that such events are isolated exceptions perpetrated by a few bad officials is not believable,” said one church leader. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

TURKEY: CHRISTIAN HELD HOSTAGE AT KNIFE POINT IN ISTANBUL


Young Muslim threatens to slit throat of convert; police arrest him after short standoff.

ISTANBUL, August 6 (Compass Direct News) – In a bizarre show of Turkish nationalism, a young Muslim here took a Christian Turk at knife point, draped his head with the national flag and threatened to slit the throat of the “missionary dog” in broad daylight earlier this week.

Yasin Karasu, 24, held Ýsmail Aydýn, 35, hostage for less than half an hour on Monday (Aug. 3) in a busy district on the Asian side of Istanbul in front of passersby and police who promptly came to the scene.

“This is Turkey, and you can’t hand out gospels,” he yelled, according to the daily newspaper Haberturk. “These godless ones without the true book are doing missionary work.”

About 99 percent of Turkey’s population is at least nominally Muslim, and in the popular mindset the religion is strongly connected with being Turkish.

Karasu threatened to slit Aydin’s throat if anyone came near him and commanded those watching to give him a Turkish flag. Within minutes, Aydin told Compass, bystanders produced two flags. Karasu, who has known Aydin for a year, wrapped the larger of the two flags around Aydin’s head, making it difficult for him to breathe in heat that reached the low 30s Celsius (90s F) this week.

“Do you see this missionary dog?” he yelled at the crowd. “He is handing out gospels and he is breaking up the country!”

Karasu placed the smaller flag in Aydin’s hand and commanded him to wave it.

“Both flags came at the same time,” Aydin told Compass. “The big one he put very tightly over my head, and in the heat I couldn’t breathe.”

The whole time Karasu held a large knife to Aydin’s throat.

“You missionary dogs, do you see this flag?” he said, commanding Aydin to wave the flag. “This is a holy flag washed in the blood of our fathers.”

Aydin said he told Karasu, “Yasin, in any case this flag is mine as well! I’m a Turk too, but I’m a Christian.”

Karasu insisted that Aydin was not a Turk because he had betrayed the Turkish flag and country by his evangelism, according to Aydin.

Aydin said he told Karasu, “No, Yasin, I’m a Turk and I’m waving this flag with love. This is my flag. I’m a Turk.” He said Karasu replied, “No, you can’t be – you are breaking up the country, and I won’t allow it.”

Police managed to convince Karasu to put down the knife and release Aydin, telling him that if he killed the convert Turkey would be ridiculed around the world, and that as a last resort they were authorized to shoot to kill him.

“If you love this country, leave the man,” they told him.

A member of the Turkish Protestant Alliance’s legal team said Karasu was evidently trying to get attention.

“He was the type of person who would commit a crime,” said Umut Sahin. “He had just gotten out of the army, he probably didn’t have a job … Anyway he achieved his goal of putting on a show.”

Sahin added that Karasu had previously gotten into trouble for selling pirated CDs.

Religious Conversations

Aydin, who escaped with a slight cut on his throat, said that he never would have believed that Karasu would do such a thing.

The two men have known each other for about a year. While in the army, Karasu showed interest in learning more about Christianity and would call Aydin, a convert from Islam, to ask questions and talk, saying he was interested in other religions.

“He would call me often, because while in the army he was really depressed and he would often call me to tell me,” said Aydin. “He wanted relief and to talk to someone, but at the same time he was researching about religions.”

After his release from compulsory army duty, Karasu called Aydin and the two planned to meet at a Protestant church in the district of Kadikoy. Karasu came with a friend identified as Baris, who preferred to stay outside while the two of them had tea alone in the church basement.

Aydin said they spoke for nearly 20 minutes about Karasu’s life in his hometown of Erzurum and his financial and family difficulties, as well as some spiritual matters, but since his friend was outside they made it short. Karasu was smiling, in good spirits and not at all the way Aydin remembered him from their meeting nearly a year earlier when he was depressed, he said.

“He looked so healthy, and he was smiling, he was dressed well, he was talking comfortably, he looked so cheerful,” recalled Aydin with disbelief. “He was not at all depressed! I was so surprised!”

Karasu thanked Aydin for the conversation, and the two got up from the table to go up the stairs. Aydin led the way, walking ahead of Karasu about a meter. Just as Aydin reached the stairway, he felt an arm grab him around the neck.

“At the first step he violently grabbed me, putting his arm around my neck, and gripped me tightly,” recalled Aydin. “I was surprised and thought someone had come up from behind me to tease me, but then I remembered it was just the two of us downstairs. ‘Yasin,’ I said, ‘Is that you? Are you playing a joke on me?’”

“What joke!” he said, pulling out a knife, according to Aydin. “You’re a missionary dog, and I’ve come to cut your throat.”

Karasu told Aydin that he planned to make an example of him in the eyes of the nation by killing him in public. Two members of the church tried and failed to stop Karasu. The two church members and Karasu’s friend followed them to a busy street down the road.

“He took me down to the busy street by the sea, threatening to kill me,” Aydin said. “The funny thing about it is that I had the impression that we were playing a part in a film. Not a single person on the way down tried to stop him or told him to stop. They just all looked on with consternation.”

Within one or two minutes, he said, police and a television crew arrived.

“Within a minute, both police and cameras showed up – how quick was that?” he said. “I was surprised.”

Suspicion of ‘Terrorism’

Although Aydin said he believes the act was an isolated incident, other Christian Turks as well as police suspect it may have been an act of propaganda to frighten Turkey’s small Protestant community, most of whom are converts from Islam.

“I don’t think it was planned,” said Aydin, “but it is possible that it was.”

The police section on terrorism combat is researching the possibility that the attack was planned by a wider group. Aydin has decided not to press charges, telling Turkish media that he forgave Karasu.

“I think it was an isolated case, but I have to see the police report,” said Sahin of the Turkish Protestant Alliance. “If this was a provocation he would have killed him. He just wanted to show off … with the Turkish flag.” He added with a chuckle, “As if we don’t like waving it.”

According to Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution, people of all faiths have the right to spread information about their faith.

Aydin, who was convinced he was going to lose his life, said he feels the experience instilled new life into him.

“On Aug. 3 I died and was reborn,” said Aydin. “That was my date of death and birth. I was sure I was going to die. It’s like a new opportunity, a new life. I really think the Lord gave me a second chance, because if you think of it, after other events, like Hrant Dink or the Malatya killings, those brothers weren’t so fortunate, right?”

Police found two knives on Karasu’s person, along with two cell phones and the two flags he got from his audience. He is still in police custody with his friend.

In February 2006 an Italian Catholic priest was killed in the Black Sea coastal town of Trabzon, and Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink was shot in front of the weekly Agos three months before three Christians – two Turks and a German – were killed in Malatya in April 2007.

Last month a German businessman was also murdered for being a Christian on a busy Istanbul street (see  “Christian Murdered on Busy Street in Istanbul,” July 28).

All murders were committed by Turkish men in their 20s.

Report from Compass Direct News 

SAUDI ARABIA: AUTHORITIES RELEASE CHRISTIAN BLOGGER


Kingdom silences convert, prohibits him from leaving country.

LOS ANGELES, April 16 (Compass Direct News) – In a surprise move, a Saudi Christian arrested in January for describing his conversion from Islam and criticizing the kingdom’s judiciary on his blog site was released on March 28 with the stipulation that he not travel outside of Saudi Arabia or appear on media.

Hamoud Saleh Al-Amri (previously reported as Hamoud Bin Saleh), 28, reportedly attributed his release to advocacy efforts by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). The Cairo-based organization had campaigned for his release along with other rights groups, reported Christian advocacy organization Middle East Concern (MEC).

Gamal Eid, director of ANHRI, told Compass by telephone that he believed his organization had nothing to do with Al-Amri’s release. Rather, he said he believed officials were loath to keep a person of questionable mental stability in prison.

“He is mentally not stable, because he had the courage to say in his blog that he is a Christian,” Eid said. “Anyone in his right mind in Saudi Arabia wouldn’t do that.”

The country’s penalty for “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, is death, although in recent years there have been no known cases of kingdom citizens formally convicted and sentenced with capital punishment for the offense.

This was not the first imprisonment for Al-Amri. He was detained in 2004 for nine months and in 2008 for one month before he was re-arrested on Jan. 13 of this year, and Eid said the young blogger was tortured during the first two incarcerations.

Al-Amri’s treatment during this latest imprisonment is unknown. After his previous releases he had contacted Eid’s office, but the ANHRI director said he has not done so since being released from Riyadh’s Eleisha prison, known for its human rights abuses.

“He was mistreated the first two times he was imprisoned, but this time I don’t know, because he hasn’t contacted me,” said Eid. “In the past he was mistreated with sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement and a continuous barrage of physical torture and insults.”

The advocate added that it is likely Al-Amri was mistreated during his recent imprisonment.

“I consider anyone who declares his religion to be anything than Islam to be extremely brave and courageous, but this extreme courage bordering on carelessness is madness, because he knows what could happen in Saudi,” Eid said. “I’m not a doctor, but I find this extreme.”

Al-Amri has become isolated from his family and lives alone, Eid said, but he said he was unable to comment on the convert’s current situation.

 

Blog Blocked

Following Al-Amri’s latest arrest, MEC reported, Saudi authorities blocked access to his blog inside Saudi Arabia. Google then locked it, claiming there was a technical violation of terms of service. On Feb. 5 it was reportedly restored due to public pressure – after his March 28 release, Al-Amri had credited his release to ANHRI’s efforts on his blog, www.christforsaudi.blogspot.com – but yesterday Compass found the site did not work.

Eid said he was not surprised the blog was blocked.

“That’s what I expected,” he said. “But he will probably start another blog – it’s not difficult.”

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though authorities have shown some tolerance for criticism and debate since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud officially ascended to the throne in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of State.

“Arabic countries are the worst on the list of censoring the Internet and are at the top of the list of antagonizing the freedom of the Internet,” said Eid. “But the Internet is still a good venue, because people are still able to express their views despite the government’s effort to curtail their efforts.”

In his blog prior to his arrest, Al-Amri had criticized the government for quashing individual rights.

“A nation which lives in this system cannot guarantee the safety of its individuals,” he wrote. “Preserving their rights from violation will always be a matter of concern, as the rights of a citizen, his dignity and humanity will always be subject to abuse and violation by those few who have absolute immunity provided to them by the regime.”

Eid of ANHRI described lack of civil law in Saudi Arabia as “extreme.” Citizens can be tortured endlessly, he said, adding that Saudis who openly state Christian faith face severe danger.

Although there have been recent moves towards reform, Saudi Arabia restricts political expression and allows only a strict version of Sunni Islam to be publicly practiced, according to MEC.

Political critic Fouad Ahmad al-Farhan became the first Saudi to be arrested for Web site postings on Dec. 10, 2007; he was released in April 2008.

Eid said he believes the lenient action of the Saudi authorities is a welcome move in a country where “there is no such thing as religious freedom.” In fact the move could encourage people of other faiths to speak up.

“This will open the door to whoever wants to express his belief, whether Christian, Hindu or other,” he said.

Saudis who choose a faith other than Islam and express it may face extra-judicial killings. In August 2008, a 26-year-old woman was killed for disclosing her faith on a Web site. Fatima Al-Mutairi reportedly had revealed on Web postings that she had left Islam to become a Christian.

Gulfnews.com reported on Aug. 12, 2008 that her father, a member of the religious police or Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, cut out her tongue and burned her to death “following a heated debate on religion.” Al-Mutairi had written about hostilities from family members after they discovered she was a Christian, including insults from her brother after he saw her Web postings about her faith. Some reports indicated that her brother was the one who killed her.

She had reportedly written an article about her faith on a blog of which she was a member under the nickname “Rania” a few days before her murder.

Report from Compass News Direct

“CHRISTIANITY IN EUROPE COMING TO AN END”: VIENNA CARDINAL


The Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna has warned that Christianity in Europe is dying out. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn said at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday, “The time of Christianity in Europe is coming to an end. A Christianity, which achieved such great things like this cathedral or the wonderful music we will hear today,” reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

Cardinal Schönborn’s Easter homily follows comments he made earlier in which he criticised Austrian Church leaders for their failure to accept and promote the watershed 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae that reiterated the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control.

In March last year, the cardinal said that many bishops are “frightened of the press and of being misunderstood by the faithful.” The result is that contraception has become widely accepted and Europe is “about to die out.”

In this Sunday’s homily, the cardinal addressed the obsession of the secular media with the Church’s teachings on sexuality, saying that it has been the subject of a “massive preconception” that the Church is opposed to sexual happiness and freedom.

“The Church can help people acquire the right attitude towards sex, which is not an isolated thing of all-consuming importance. The quality of the entire relationship is what is important in a male-female partnership,” he said.

The decline of the Catholic Church in Austria mirrors that of the rest of Europe since the advent of the 1960s “sexual revolution.” While official Vatican statistics say that 72.7 percent of Austrians are Catholic, a 2005 European Social Survey found that just 63.9 percent of Austrians actually describe themselves as such and almost 30 percent say they have no religious affiliation at all. Weekly Mass attendance among Catholics in the country hovers around 10 percent and, between 1985 and 2002, the number of priests in Austria dropped by almost one-quarter.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

SUDAN: CONVERTS FROM ISLAM STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE


Christian woman run out of home – and beaten – while another is prohibited from leaving.

KHARTOUM, Sudan, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – When Halima Bubkier of Sinar town converted from Islam to Christianity last year, initially her husband accepted it without qualms.

“After watching the ‘Jesus Film,’ I felt I needed a change in my hopeless and meaningless life,” the 35-year-old mother of three told Compass. “I lived a life of alcoholism and lacked self control, hence tried Christianity and it worked well for me. I shared this experience with my husband, and he was quite positive about it and allowed me to attend church services.”

News of her conversion spread quickly, she said, and last Sept. 14 she came face to face with Islamic hardliners who felt her conversion to Christianity was an act of betrayal. A few weeks later, during the daily fasts and nightly feasts of Ramadan in Sinar, near Khartoum, the Islamists blocked her husband from the communal meals because of her change in faith.

“My husband was totally rejected by his colleagues,” she said. “They even refused to eat the food that I had cooked for him, saying that Muslims could not eat food cooked by infidels.”

Bubkier said she never expected her change in faith would lead to the ordeal that followed.

“He was so angry that he threw an armchair at me and injured my back,” she said. “As if this was not enough, he took out all his belongings from the house then set the house on fire. After I lost all my belongings, he then chased me away.”

She decided to run for refuge to her older brother, Nur Bubkier – who, having been informed of her conversion, responded by thoroughly beating her and trying to knife her.

Two Christians from the Sudanese Church of Christ, Maria Mohamud and a church deacon, managed to rescue her from the violence, but Halima Bubkier was jailed for three days at a police station, she said, on the false charge of “disrespecting Islam.” During that time Mohamud took care of her 2-year-old baby.

After three days in jail, she was waiting to appear before a judge.

“Before my case was heard, a Coptic priest [identified only as Sheed] knew of my case and talked with a police officer, privately telling him that according to the law, no one is supposed to be jailed because of religion,” Bubkier told Compass. “I was then freed.”

Bubkier left her two children, ages 6 and 8, behind with her husband, who is said to have married another woman. She said that although her main concern is the safety of her children, at least she is in hiding and her husband does not know her whereabouts.

“I expected my husband to appreciate my positive change, but instead he responded negatively,” Bubkier said. “Indeed there is something wrong with Islam where good is rewarded with evil. But I feel normal. Now I have a better life to live for. I was lost and in darkness. Let God forgive all those who have wronged me. I know I cannot go back.”

 

Home Prison

In Sahafa, five kilometers (three miles) south of Khartoum, another woman who left Islam is under a kind of house arrest by her family members for converting to Christianity.

Senah Abdulfatah Altyab was formerly a student of laboratory science at Sudan University of Technology, but today she is out of touch with the outside world. Her education came to an end after a film about Christ led to her conversion.

A close friend of Altyab, Ebtehaj Alsanosi Altejani Mostafh, said Altyab’s family closely monitors her.

“She cannot receive calls,” Mostafh said. “Her brother forbids her from moving outside the homestead or even attending [St. Peter and Paul Catholic] church” in Amarat, Khartoum.

Last Christmas, Mostafh said, she met Altyab near a public market during an Islamic celebration day, prayed with her and advised her that she should present her case to a commission dedicated to guarding the rights of non-Muslims. The Commission for the Rights of Non-Muslims in the National Capital, created by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 following Sudan’s long civil war, was designed to advise courts on how to fairly apply sharia (Islamic law) to non-Muslims.

Made up of representatives from Muslim, Christian and traditional religious groups, the commission “made little headway in changing official government policy towards non-Muslims in Khartoum,” according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report, though it did obtain release or leniency for some non-Muslims accused of violating sharia.

Altyab said she feels the commission would do little for her case because most of its members are radical Muslims. Moreover, she said her uncle, Yusuf Alkoda, is a radical Muslim and will make her life more difficult.

“I find life very difficult,” Altyab said. “I feel lonely and isolated. How long will I have to live in this state? Life without education is miserable.”

Sudan’s 2005 Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of religion throughout the entire country, but Altyab said that stipulation is brazenly flouted. The constitution enshrines sharia as a key source of legislation in northern Sudan.

The 29-year-old Mostafh, for her part, said she converted from Islam to Christianity in 2005 and as a result was immediately fired from her job. She later obtained another job. A member of All Saints Cathedral Church in Khartoum, she told Compass that since her conversion, she has suffered total isolation from her Muslim friends. During communal celebrations, she said, she is looked down upon and seen as a lady lost and destined for hell.

“Life is very difficult for me for the last four years, since joining Christianity,” she said. “I have been living all alone in the rental house here at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church-Borri, which is something unusual for a Muslim lady who is unmarried. My former friends are saying that there must be something wrong with me.”

Her immediate family lives in Saudi Arabia. Her only chance of seeing them, she said, is to go on the Islamic pilgrimage or hajj, and that option is now closed.

“My big challenge is how I can be accepted by my family members,” she said. “For me to go to Saudi Arabia, pilgrimage is the only opportunity, but this is not relevant for me as a Christian.”

The many instances of Christians suffering in northern Sudan go largely unreported. The president of the Sudanese Church of Christ, Barnabas Maitias, told Compass of one church member, a convert from Islam identified only as Ahmed, who received Christ in April 2007 – and quickly had his wife and children taken away.

Hard-line Muslims also planned to kill the convert, Maitias said.

“The church had to take him to another location in the Nuba Mountains, Korarak area, where he is employed as driver,” Maitias noted. “Most of the churches in Khartoum are housing Muslim converts who have no place to stay or get their daily basic needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News

UZBEKISTAN GOVERNMENT INTERFERENCE SLOWS CHURCH GROWTH


Three Christians have each been sentenced to 15 days in prison in the Andijan region of eastern Uzbekistan after police raided a home. Uzbekistan is located in Central Asia, north of Afghanistan, reports MNN.

According to Forum 18 News, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation, three additional Protestants at the house were detained in a homeless center for between four and eleven days, for not having their identification documents with them.

In a separate case, a Baptist in the capital city of Tashkent was given a ten-day prison sentence after approximately 20 officials from various state agencies — including the Presidential Administration — raided a prayer meeting in a registered church.

Officials told church members that they need special permission for any services aside from those on Sundays, though Forum 18 said the news service can’t find any legal requirement for this alleged regulation.

Vice President of Russian Ministries Sergey Rakhuba says they have work in the region, and he confirms that attacks against Christians are on the increase. “It looks like officials are targeting everybody who is talking about their faith, claiming that they are there to destroy their country.”

Rakhuba says these aren’t isolated cases of oppression. He says it’s happening all over the country. “People we work with are sending us messages saying that this is the beginning of another wave of very intense and very serious persecution.”

Ironically this has nothing to do with a new religion law in Uzbekistan, according to Rakhuba. “The believers were in their homes. They were in their churches. They were doing what their constitution allows. They were praying and reading the Bible. But government officials arrested them under their terrorist act or regulation, implying that they’re trying to [create an uprising] against their country, which it totally not true.”

Rakhuba says authorities are even trying to fabricate violations of the religion law. “They will stop somebody in the car, or arrest somebody on the streets, and then they plant New Testaments or Bibles or other literature, claiming that they were trying to distribute it on the streets, when they’re not trying to do that.”

He says even the long time Russian Baptist are having difficulties in the country.

Because the government’s taking such a hard stand on evangelical Christians, the church has gone underground. “That’s really who they are after. The more pressure they create, the more success we see in the underground movement, just like any other place on earth.”

Rakhuba reports that the underground church movement is growing like wildfire. Russian Ministries’ Schools Without Walls program has been created to work well in underground situations — training the next generation church leaders. “You don’t have to have schools or classrooms or schedules or approvals. You just have to have a leader” who’s willing to go and train.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

PERSECUTION HAS NOT ABATED IN 2008, AND PROBABLY WILL NOT IN 2009


Persecution has diminished for some Christians in 2008, but it has increased for others. Overall, Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs believes it is worse than it used to be and will continue to worsen in 2009, reports MNN.

“I think there are situations where it’s worse. I think there are probably some isolated situations where things are improving a little bit, but I think on the whole, it’s at least as bad and probably worse than 2007, or worse than five or ten years ago,” said Nettleton.

Persecution has worsened drastically in Orissa, a state in India. Hindu radicals in that region have been rampaging against Christians since August.

“Orissa is probably the location of the worst persecution that’s going on right now in the world,” Nettleton said, “a place where they’re trying to wipe out the Christian church; a place where tens of thousands of Christians have had to flee their homes. Many of them fled literally into the jungle to escape the attacks of radical Hindus.”

In the months leading up to the Olympic games in Beijing, many hoped that the publicity surrounding that event would bring more liberty for the people of China. Unfortunately, such has not been the case.

“The concern that we had when the Olympics ended was that although the world has been watching, the Chinese continued persecuting Christians. What will they do now that the world’s not watching anymore?” Nettleton said. “Even in the months since the Olympic games, we have seen Christians arrested. We’ve seen house church services raided. So I don’t think it’s markedly better. I think it’s really about the same.”

Nettleton is not discouraged by the fact that persecution has not decreased and probably will not. He has observed that, ironically, persecution actually increases the strength of God’s church.

“One of the amazing things is that as persecution increases, the church tends to grow. As the church tends to grow, the persecution increases,” he said. “Christ promised that His followers would be persecuted, and that is coming true around the world. But that also means the church is growing. More people are coming to know Christ in a personal way.”

VOM’s biggest challenge nowadays “is to know how best to respond in a given situation of persecution,” Nettleton said.

“The challenge for us is to know the best way to support the church in restricted nations, the best way to come alongside them and lift them up, support them, and encourage them.”

Nettleton is excited about VOM’s “vital role” in connecting believers with their Christian brothers and sisters all over the world.

“When we go into a restricted nation and we’re able to deliver help, we say, ‘This is from Christians in America who love you and are praying for you during this time of suffering.’ Then when we come home and talk to the church in America we say, ‘Our brothers and sisters in restricted nations are praying for you here in America.’ We get to be a bridge between the two churches, and it’s really an exciting role that God has called Voice of the Martyrs to play.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

INDONESIA: VILLAGE TO BE REBUILT FOLLOWING ISLAMIC RAMPAGE


Officials question Christian teacher whose alleged comment was said to trigger violence.

AMBON, Indonesia, December 17 (Compass Direct News) – Government officials in Central Maluku, Indonesia, yesterday promised to reconstruct before Christmas two church buildings and a number of houses set ablaze last week during sectarian rioting in Letwaru village, Masohi district.

The promises came after hundreds of activists from a local youth organization protested in the streets of nearby Ambon on Monday (Dec. 15), holding these officials responsible for failing to maintain law and order, local media reported.

Also on Monday, police formally questioned a Christian elementary schoolteacher accused of making an anti-Islamic comment. Welhelmina Holle has been accused of insulting Islam while tutoring one of her students; following the Nov. 23 distribution of a flyer expressing the allegation against the schoolteacher, around 500 protestors gathered outside the education agency office and police headquarters on Dec. 9, and the protest quickly escalated into a full-scale riot.

Enraged Muslims destroyed 69 buildings, including two church buildings of a single congregation, 42 homes owned by Christians, four shops and a village hall. They also inadvertently struck 16 homes owned by Muslims.

Several people, including a police officer who attempted to stop the mob, were wounded during the rampage, according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The time that lapsed between the Nov. 23 flyer and the Dec. 9 rioting shows that police were lax, said pastor Maureen Latuihamallo Ferdinandus, head of the Maluku Protestant Church (GPM) in Letwaru.

“The blasphemy issues had been spread since Nov. 23 – the time span until the day of the riot, Dec. 9, was long enough,” she said. “Yet police failed to anticipate the big protests and village rampage.”

 

Reconstruction, Relief Efforts

“We are committed to finishing the reconstruction of homes and churches before Christmas, so Christians won’t have to celebrate it in temporary shelters,” regency head Abdullah Tuasikal told The Jakarta Post yesterday.

Tuasikal had asked all construction workers in the area to participate in reconstruction efforts, while provincial and regency administrations allocated 2 billion rupiah (US$181,000) to the project.

The rebuilding of Syiloam Church began on Saturday (Dec. 13). Officials also promised to replace 200 chairs burned in the attack.

At press time, relief was trickling through to 1,764 people displaced by the riots, 1,523 Christians and 241 Muslims. The whereabouts of another 200 people are unknown.

Letwaru village, with a predominantly Christian population, borders a Muslim village with a narrow street separating both communities. When rioting broke out, the mob unknowingly attacked 16 homes occupied by Muslims on the Letwaru side of the street.

Critics say that government relief is far from adequate. Pastor Ferdinandus said displaced villagers desperately needed food and water, clothes, stoves and cooking utensils. Water was the first priority, as supplies were limited in the police station and prison that had provided temporary housing to some of the villagers.

Most of the displaced Christians took refuge in their relatives’ homes in neighboring villages, while Muslim victims opted to stay with relatives in the nearby town of Masohi.

“We’ve faced difficulties in identifying the needs of the displaced people since they are scattered,” Ferdinandus told Compass.

Last Friday (Dec. 12), three days after the riots, the streets of Letwaru were deserted. Few Christians dared venture out to the office or market; one resident told Compass that she had not yet returned to her office because “it’s not safe yet.” Life continued as normal, however, in downtown Masohi, an area where most residents are Muslims.

Maluku police chief Brig. Gen. Mudji Waluyo told The Jakarta Post that he would assign two-thirds of the Central Maluku police force to maintain security in the area during Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, in addition to military troops.

Police have named Asmara Wasahua, Muhammad Patty – and Holle, the schoolteacher – as suspects in the riot. According to local media reports, police have accused Wasahua, a local candidate of the Islamic Justice and Welfare Party, of distributing hate flyers and mobilizing the protestors.

 

Discouraging Retaliation

Ferdinandus has urged her congregation in Letwaru not to retaliate, despite personal losses. “Up to now, none of our congregation has fought back,” she told Compass.

She said she believed that the riot was planned in advance.

“We were caught by surprise,” she said. “The assailants, on the other hand, looked as if they had carefully prepared for the attack.”

According to the pastor, the long-term education of Christian children who had until last week attended schools in Muslim neighborhoods would “definitely be disrupted” because of the riots.

When asked about the possibility of another large-scale religious conflict, Ferdinandus said the incident was not purely religious, but that certain groups had used the accusations against teacher Holle “as a political vehicle” to further their own interests. She added however, that “riots like these can start and end anytime. Things become very unpredictable.”

Ferdinandus also felt police should have dealt swiftly with the allegations against Holle before offended parties took to the streets.

According to Open Doors, in May a mob attacked another Christian village in Maluku, killing three people and destroying 116 homes.

These incidents, though isolated, suggest ongoing tension between Christian and Muslim communities in the Maluku islands, where violent religious conflict between 1999 and 2002 claimed at least 7,000 lives.  

Report from Compass Direct News