Peter FitzSimons has plenty of critics in Australia, as do many other journalists and public figures, and dare I say ‘celebrities.’ I find much of what Peter has to say refreshing, sensible and very good, though as with others whom I agree with on many occasions, there are times I disagree with him and on some issues we stand worlds apart. His attacks on Christianity is one of the areas I disagree with him and this article I cam across, linked to below, offers some useful thoughts on this area.
The link below is to an online tribute for Peter Harvey, an Australian journalist who died recently. Peter Harvey was one of Australia’s most outstanding journalists.
Rugby League players are people who have decided to play a game/sport and they have every right to do so. Those who reach an elite level of the game have a proven ability to play and rightly deserve to be regarded as great players of the sport. But that is all they gain by playing the game. They don’t automatically become role models and the behaviour of many players over the years has shown that any attempt to prove them so is clearly ridiculous.
Being a great sportsmen doesn’t make you a great person. Being a great sportsmen doesn’t make you a hero – it is in the end only a game and you have not proven yourself to be an exceptional human being. A number of exceptional human beings have played rugby league, but it was not their association with rugby league that made them so or made them a role model.
Observers of the game of Rugby League can be forgiven for thinking that there are many modern players of the game who come nowhere near the position of being a role model, exceptional human being or even a decent human being. Indeed these descriptions may be beyond a number of those playing the game and the behaviour of players at a recent ‘Mad Monday’ event involving the Canterbury Bulldogs may only confirm this in the minds of many. Others defending the players ‘right’ to privacy as a defence for their offensive behaviour may very well also fail to reach a standard of decency that many fear is lost to so many players in the current rugby league playing generation.
The link below is to an article reporting on the pathetic response to the offensive comments made to a female journalist following the Canterbury loss to Melbourne.
Two key witnesses’ testimonies connect suspects to higher-level ‘masterminds.’
ISTANBUL, October 21 (CDN) — A court in southeast Turkey on Friday (Oct. 15) ordered the arrest of a suspected “middleman” linking the murder of three Christian men to alleged high-level masterminds.
The arrest order came after the testimonies of a former prison inmate and an incarcerated ex-gendarmerie intelligence worker at Friday’s hearing. Journalist Varol Bulent Aral – one of the suspected “middlemen” who allegedly incited five young men to stab to death Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske at the Zirve Publishing Co. in Malatya – was re-arrested at the hearing.
The three Christians were bound and tortured before they were murdered on April 18, 2007, at the Christian publishing house, where they worked. Suspects Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim and alleged ring-leader Emre Gunaydin were caught trying to escape from the scene of the crime.
Attorneys said the last hearing of the Malatya murders was productive in tracing links between the five murderers and political masterminds whom prosecution lawyers claim are behind the slayings. A key witness, Orhan Kartal, was instrumental in proving that Aral was behind the murders, lawyers said.
“Not only this witness, but Emre also accused Aral before and then changed his statement,” said one of the prosecuting lawyers, Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “Before he retracted his statement, he gave details that couldn’t have been fabricated. So from the beginning we saw Aral was involved but couldn’t prove it.”
Kartal spent two months in prison with Aral in Adiyaman in 2008, where they were both held for crimes not related to the Zirve murders. Kartal said that while in prison together Aral detailed how he had planned the attack on the Zirve publishing house by psychologically preparing the five young murderers for the gruesome act. According to Kartal, Aral said he gave the young men the weapons they used to kill the three Christians.
In Kartal’s account, Aral also claimed that there was a higher figure behind him, retired Gen. Veli Kucuk. This year Aral completed his previous prison sentence. He is now again in prison as a key suspect in the Malatya murders.
In a previous statement, Aral had complained that retired Gen. Kucuk had threatened him about testifying. Gen. Kucuk has been arrested in connection with Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to destabilize the government. Evidence in Malatya hearings over the past three years suggests that the murders were instigated by Ergenekon.
Aral has also been implicated in the Ergenekon case, the hearings of which are underway.
Prosecutors believe the Malatya murders are directly linked with a military operation called the Cage Plan within the scope of Ergenekon activities. A document entitled “Cage Plan,” found on a retired general’s computer, described assassinations that targeted the country’s small Christian communities. The document referred to the Malatya murders as a “successful operation.”
A second witness, Erhan Ozen, also in prison for other offenses, worked for the clandestine Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization (JITEM). He said that as early as 2004, JITEM personnel were planning the Malatya murders and the assassination of Armenian editor Hrant Dink.
Ozen said that after a meeting, some co-workers talked about how they were organizing an operation against the three Christians in Malatya in an effort to portray the state as ineffectual. He also testified that the rector of the local university and JITEM were monitoring the activities of the three Christian men.
“He was convincing because he gave many details that were coherent and that confirm each other, so his testimony seems to me authentic,” attorney Cengiz said. “But of course, we will see.”
In April the Malatya court added the Cage Plan indictment to its case file.
Prosecuting lawyer Erdogan Dogan told Compass that this is clear evidence linking the Malatya murders to the Cage Plan. For almost a year, prosecution lawyers have tried to make the case that the two court cases should be merged.
“We had progress in the case,” Dogan said of the two testimonies on Friday. “They might decide to join the two cases in the next court hearing.”
Judges had found the phone numbers of ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination –in Aral’s personal phone book. Both figures are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon and spearheaded prosecution of Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for speaking to people about their faith.
This week various media released autopsy pictures and images of police videos showing the five suspects as they walk through the blood-stained Zirve office explaining how they committed the crime.
Lawyers said they did not know who leaked these to the press, but they didn’t think the images would affect the case.
“These will, however, show the country how the young men were incited and murdered the men, full of racism and hatred,” said Dogan. “This will be obvious and should be noted. The state needs to urgently address the fact that these youngsters, or anyone, can become so filled with racism and hatred.”
He said that acceptance and tolerance of other people’s thoughts and beliefs is fundamental, and that the state should teach these values to its people.
The next hearing of the Malatya murders case is on Dec. 3.
Report from Compass Direct News
Hard-line cleric defies local officials’ order to stop construction.
SARGODHA, Pakistan, September 1 (CDN) — Muslims led by a hard-line cleric on Friday (Aug. 27) resumed building on a Christian cemetery in Mandi Bhawaldin, desecrating more graves in spite of a local government order to halt construction, according to the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA).
Radical Muslim cleric Mirza Abdul Ghani had built a mosque on the Christian graveyard off New Rasool Road in Mandi Bhawaldin after allegedly occupying the land 16 years ago, when area Christians were too intimidated to object, said Salamat Zia of APMA.
“No one could object to the construction of the mosque, as it is in the constitution of Pakistan that no religious worship place could be demolished,” said Zia. “Therefore all the Christians remained silent then.”
The cleric’s alleged desecration of more of the graveyard land around the Masjid Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat mosque began three months ago, Zia said.
“This Christian graveyard was earmarked before the Indo-Pakistan partition on Aug. 14, 1947,” Zia added, “and their forefathers were buried there.”
Zia, a local journalist and resident of the Muhalla Ghorra area in Mandi Bhawaldin, said it initially appeared that Ghani’s workers were building an addition to the mosque, as only pillars had been erected. Now Ghani’s builders have completed a basement as well as possibly some shops, with cement plaster now being applied to the new units.
On Aug. 6 Zia led a seven-member Christian delegation intending to meet with District Coordination Officer (DCO) Muhammad Amin Chaudhary, another district officer named Syed Shahbaz Hussain Naqvi and District Police Officer Dar Ali Khatak of Mandi Bhawaldin about the encroachments on the Christian graveyard and to discuss how the graves of their loved ones were being demolished and desecrated.
As DCO Chaudhary was on leave, Acting DCO Shahid Rana took their application and forwarded it to the District Officer of Revenue and Tehsil Officer of Regulations with directives to visit the site and demolish all encroachments except the Masjid Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat mosque, Zia said.
After inspecting the site, the administrative officers issued directives to stop the illegal encroachments, and for a few days the construction was halted, he said.
“But despite the stay orders of stopping construction, the Muslim men restarted construction over the Christian graves on Aug. 27,” Zia said.
Khalid Gill, chief organizer of APMA in Punjab Province, said that Muslim leaders threatened Christians who objected to the construction.
“They threatened that in case Christians protested against the resumption of construction they would also carry out a protest rally against Christians, and Muslim clerics said Christians would be responsible for the consequences,” Gill said.
APMA has demanded that the government allocate land for a Christian graveyard equivalent to the area allegedly occupied by the Muslims.
Local Urdu-language dailies in Mandi Bhawaldin have publicized the alleged encroachment on the Christian graveyard.
Report from Compass Direct News
Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.
MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”
After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.
This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.
Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.
Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.
While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.
In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.
According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.
“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”
The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.
“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”
The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”
“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.
Religion Excluded from Rights
The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”
Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.
“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”
Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”
He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.
“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”
Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”
Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.
“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”
Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.
Politics of Religion
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.
The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.
In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.
“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.
That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.
When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.
Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.
Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.
To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.
Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.
Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.
Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”
Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”
Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”
As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.
How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?
“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.
Report from Compass Direct News
Court suspends Mohammed Hegazy’s lawsuit pending outcome of separate case.
CAIRO, Egypt, May 17 (CDN) — An Egyptian convert to Christianity said he is devastated by a recent court decision to suspend a lawsuit he filed to change the religion on his identification card from Muslim to Christian.
The First District of the Court of the State Council on April 27 suspended Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy’s case until the Constitutional Court rules on a challenge to Article 47, a section of the civil code that in theory allows Egyptians to change the religion listed on their ID card.
Hegazy, 27, said the suspension endangers his children’s welfare and will force them to lead a double life indefinitely – at home they will be taught to live in accordance with the Bible, and outside it they will be taught to live according to the Quran.
If they ultimately decide to follow Jesus, Hegazy said, his children will be declared “apostates” and be persecuted the rest of their lives for “leaving Islam.” Hegazy, who has suffered severely after Egypt’s religious authorities declared him an apostate, including being imprisoned by State Security Investigations (SSI) several times, said he filed the case so his children would avoid the same fate.
“I didn’t want them to have to go through the same harassment and persecution that I went through,” he said. “My daughter won’t be able to go to school without constantly fearing for her safety. She might even be killed simply because she is my daughter.”
Hegazy is arguably the most well-known Muslim convert to Christianity in Egypt. He rose to national prominence in August 2007 when he became the first Muslim convert in Egypt to sue for the right to change the religious status on his identification card to “Christian.”
Hegazy said he became a Christian in 1998 after seeking God during a period of intense study of religion. In his final assessment, he said, he found that Islam was void of the love and forgiveness found in Christianity.
Not long after his conversion, Hegazy said, he was arrested by SSI agents who tortured him for three days. In 2001, the SSI arrested Hegazy for writing a book of poems critical of the agency, which has been accused of abusive practices to preserve the regime. In 2002, the SSI arrested Hegazy and held him for more than two months in a prison he compared to a “concentration camp.”
In addition to the government response to his conversion, Hegazy said his mother and father have attacked him repeatedly for becoming a Christian.
“In the culture in Egypt, for a person to change his religion, it’s a big deal because it’s a question of honor and tradition,” Hegazy said. “My dad and my mom took it in a really bad way and would beat me.”
Hegazy married another convert from Islam, Katarina, in 2005. Katarina also wants her ID changed but fears government reaction; there are numerous reports circulating among Egyptian Christians about female converts being arrested and tortured by the SSI or simply disappearing in Egypt’s prison system under Egypt’s Emergency Law. Renewed last week for another two years, the law grants the government broad powers of arbitrary incarceration that human rights groups have roundly criticized.
When Hegazy filed his suit in 2007, he and his wife were expecting their first child. Overnight, Egyptian media propelled him into the national limelight. And the persecution got much worse.
Two religious scholars from Al-Azhar University, one of the leading voices of Islamic thought in the Middle East, publicly declared it was legal to kill Muslims that convert to Christianity. In one incident, extremists surrounded a home where Hegazy had once lived and stayed there for several days. In another incident, a group of men ransacked and set fire to Hegazy’s apartment while he was away.
Throughout his legal proceedings, several of Hegazy’s attorney’s have dropped out of the case after receiving death threats, being sued or being arrested. On Jan. 28, 2009, a court ruled that Muslims were forbidden to convert to another religion and ordered Hegazy to pay the costs of hearing his case. He appealed.
Hegazy lives in hiding. Unable to work, the former journalist is supported by friends and other Christians. Last month’s ruling will likely delay a decision in Hegazy’s case for several years and keep him and his family in limbo.
“The court is using this decision as a way of delaying having to make an ultimate decision,” Hegazy said.
The couple’s first child, Mariam, is now 2 years old, and their second child, Yousef, is 3 months old. Because Hegazy and his wife are unable to change their ID to reflect their true faith, the government lists both of their children as Muslims. If they choose to become Christians, they will be considered apostates who, in accordance with longstanding interpretation of the guiding scriptures of Islam, must be killed by faithful Muslims.
“It makes me feel like religion in Egypt isn’t something you can choose by your own free will; it’s something that you are forced to be, and nobody has a choice to choose what their religion is,” Hegazy said. “It bothers me a lot because my kids know they are being brought up as Christians in their home and their parents are Christians, but they can’t practice their religion outside the house.”
Every Egyptian citizen age 16 or older must carry a state-issued ID card that is required for opening a bank account, enrolling children in school and for starting a business, among other activities. Religious identity also determines to which civil or family court one is subject.
Of primary importance to Hegazy is that the religion indicated on the ID card determines what religious education classes a child is required to take in school.
There is a stark contrast in Egypt between the treatment of Christians who want to change the religious affiliation on their ID card to Islam and Muslims who want to change their affiliation to Christianity. Generally speaking, because Muslims consider the preaching of Muhammad to be the last of three revelations from God to man, in practice “freedom of religion” in Egypt means only the freedom to convert to Islam.
Article 47 of Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the constitution also states that Islam is the official religion of Egypt. Article 2 of the constitution states that Islamic law, or sharia, is “the principle source of legislation” in Egypt.
The difference between the treatment of converts to Christianity and converts to Islam is illustrated in the case of Samy Aziz Fahmy. The week before the court postponed Hegazy’s case, Fahmy, a Coptic Christian from Saayda village, changed his legal status to Islam. He received his ID card reflecting his new religion on the same day he applied for it – on the day he turned 18, the legal age for conversion.
“I think it’s very weird and not fair that when Christians want to convert to Islam there’s no problem, their papers go through and there’s no discrimination against them,” Hegazy said. “But when Muslims want to convert to Christianity, all of the sudden it’s a big deal.”
Hegazy is not alone in his legal battles. After he filed his case, other Muslim converts sought court action to change their IDs. Like Hegazy, most are in hiding of some sort. Hegazy’s lead attorney, Ashraf Edward, said he is working on several ID cases. He estimates there are more than 4 million converts to Christianity who want to change the religion listed on their ID, though the basis for that figure is unclear.
“There are a lot of people who want to change their ID, but they’re afraid of turning it into a court case because they don’t want to be persecuted,” Edward said.
Human rights groups and government agencies around the world have condemned Egypt for its record on religious freedom. In a report issued earlier this month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom outlined Egypt’s problems with identification cards and the treatment of converts from Islam, taking note of Hegazy’s case.
“The Egyptian government generally does not recognize conversions of Muslims to other religions,” the report states. “Egyptian courts also have refused to allow Muslims who convert to Christianity to change their identity cards to reflect their conversions. In the first such case, brought by Muhammad Hegazy, a lower court ruled in January 2008 that Muslims are forbidden from converting away from Islam based on principles of Islamic law. The court also stated that such conversion would constitute a disparagement of the official state religion and an enticement for other Muslims to convert. Hegazy, who has been subjected to death threats and is currently in hiding, has appealed the ruling.”
The report cited numerous other problem areas in regard to freedom of worship in Egypt, and the country remained on USCIRF’s Watch List for 2010. Egypt has been on the list since 2002. Among the changes USCIRF said are necessary in Egypt is how religion is reported on Egypt’s national ID card.
The commission said Egypt must “ensure that every Egyptian is protected against discrimination in social, labor, and other rights by modifying the national identity card, either to omit mention of religious affiliation or make optional any mention of religious affiliation.”
Report from Compass Direct News
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.
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.
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
Scheme to destabilize pro-Islamic government believed to be part of Ergenekon conspiracy.
ISTANBUL, December 29 (CDN) — Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Dec. 25) took further steps to connect the murders of three Christians in southeastern Turkey to a Turkish military plan to destabilize the pro-Islamic government.
Evidence surfaced in Turkish press last month linking the murders of the three Christians in the southeastern city of Malatya with army activities to overthrow the government in a special operation called the “Operation Cage Action Plan.” The Malatya prosecutor and plaintiffs on Friday requested that the Istanbul prosecutor further probe links between the Malatya case and the Cage Plan, which included an elaborate scheme to attack Muslim-majority Turkey’s religious minorities.
They also requested that the Malatya court open to plaintiffs the currently “classified” prosecutor’s investigation into links between the Malatya murders and an alleged operation by the military and other political figures to destabilize the government known as Ergenekon.
Evidence of the Cage Plan, believed to be part of Ergenekon, centers on a compact disc found in April in the house of a retired naval officer; it was decrypted and leaked to the press last month. The plan, to be carried out by 41 named naval officers and dated March 2009, termed as “operations” the murders of the three Christians in Malatya, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andreas Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.
“This Cage Plan starts with a reference to the Malatya, Dink and Santoro cases and mentions them as previous ‘operations,’” said one of the plaintiff lawyers, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, adding that a connection of the murders with the Cage Plan would be difficult for any court to ignore.
Hearings for Ergenekon are ongoing in Istanbul. Istanbul prosecutors handling the Ergenekon case sent a response to the Malatya court this month in which they reported they have not been able to find a direct connection with the Malatya murders yet. The Malatya court is waiting for further investigations into possible connections with Ergenekon.
Cengiz said that although investigations are moving slowly, he is pleased with the willingness of the Malatya prosecutor to cooperate and find who is behind the murders.
“I see a good will on the part of the prosecutor,” said Cengiz. “He’s really trying to discover the possible links, and I’m glad to see his effort, and he was helpful and supportive to us. It was important.”
Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were tortured and stabbed to death in Malatya on April 18, 2007 at Zirve Publishing Co., which distributed Bibles and literature in the area.
Suspects Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who were caught at the crime scene, are still held in prison in Malatya. Two other suspects, journalist Varol Bulent Aral and Huseyin Yelki, a former volunteer at Zirve, are not under arrest, but the court expects them to attend all hearings.
Aral and Yelki are believed to have crucial links with the alleged masterminds of the murder plot.
The next trial is set for Feb. 19, 2010.
Report from Compass Direct News