How can governments communicate with multicultural Australians about COVID vaccines? It’s not as simple as having a poster in their language


Holly Seale, UNSW; Abela Mahimbo, University of Technology Sydney; Ben Harris-Roxas, UNSW, and Nadia Chaves, La Trobe University

Australia launched its COVID-19 vaccination campaign last week, beginning with frontline workers in hotel quarantine, health care and aged care.

But one critical question is whether the immunisation program will meet the needs of people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.

People from CALD backgrounds form a significant and growing share of Australia’s frontline workforce. This is especially true for aged, disability and community care, as well as hotel quarantine.

For example, 37% of Australian frontline care workers were born overseas according to 2016 statistics. Around 28% are from non‐English‐speaking backgrounds.

Others may have low health literacy skills or find it challenging to track down and understand information about COVID vaccines. Lower health literacy is associated with a reluctance to accept vaccines. Recent studies also suggest those who speak a language other than English at home are less willing to get vaccinated than those who speak English only.

It’s critical we deliver a program aligned with the needs of CALD communities to ensure high levels of public confidence in the COVID vaccine rollout.

To achieve this, in February the federal government released a plan to ensure COVID vaccine rollout information and services are accessible for CALD communities.

The plan outlines the need for clear messaging that’s inclusive, tailored and translated. It also emphasises the importance of working with community leaders and multicultural community organisations.

Our new research, published today, supports the actions outlined in the plan but also highlights areas needing more focus.

We interviewed people working in multicultural and refugee agencies, as well as stakeholders in CALD community organisations, to understand barriers around communication and engagement during the pandemic.




Read more:
Can I choose what vaccine I get? What if I have allergies or side-effects? Key COVID vaccine rollout questions answered


Information gaps

Our research found gaps in information available during the pandemic. For example, there have been delays in making translations available.

Many people have sought information and news from their countries of origin to fill these gaps. This information may be irrelevant to the Australian situation, or contradictory to local recommendations.

There’s a divide between governments and individuals, with some people feeling like they’ve been left behind. Issues such as an inability to navigate government websites or difficulties accessing support have contributed to this divide.

Translated COVID information hasn’t always been appropriate for people with low literacy or low health literacy levels. This stems from the original source materials in English not being suitable, or translations not being reviewed to make sure the information makes sense.

Newly arrived migrant communities are most in need, as many don’t have established networks to support them. Translated resources have mostly been developed for larger, established CALD groups rather than new and emerging communities. There’s been a lack of tailoring in how messages and information are communicated, and ethnic newspapers and media haven’t been effectively used.

Some people are worried they’ll lose their jobs if they refuse to get vaccinated. The challenge is they don’t have anyone to ask questions of, and are unable to access trustworthy material online.

One issue that was repeatedly raised was burnout experienced by community leaders and other stakeholders. These leaders are asked to repeatedly translate, turn “government speak into community speak”, spread messages and answer questions. They take on this role in addition to their normal responsibilities, with little to no financial support and often with an emotional burden.

The federal government’s plan recognises we need to work with community leaders, but little detail has been provided about whether support, training or resources will be available.

Health-care worker giving patient a vaccine
Community leaders play a crucial role in disseminating COVID information, but they need to be adequately supported or they risk burning out.
Shutterstock

Here’s how things could change

Beyond the need to support community leaders, we also heard from participants about ways to improve communication and vaccine delivery.

Our research team makes a number of recommendations, including the need to:

  • identify other community ambassadors and provide training to build their knowledge and confidence

  • employ bilingual engagement officers from local communities, to support action being taken by communities themselves. Similar engagement officers have been used to support participation in Australian Bureau of Statistics data collection. Census engagement officers work within communities telling people about the census and ensuring everyone can take part and get the help they need. Internationally, this strategy has been used to promote HIV testing and counselling by encouraging community members to talk about the issues

  • invite local CALD communities to initiate and host forums in media of their choice, and to ensure government officials are available to answer questions

  • develop a glossary of immunisation terms. This would enable standard terminology relevant to COVID for community organisations, community and faith-based leaders, translators and interpreters

  • set up vaccination clinics in locations where communities feel safe. This could include outdoor facilities, sports clubs, community centres, faith-based locations and schools. Ensure there are transport options available

  • undertake ongoing surveys to capture how CALD communities feel, think and act in relation to the Australian COVID vaccination program. Tailoring messages will only be effective when informed by the issues that communities are actually concerned about

  • and support alliances between immunisation experts and those working in refugee health and multicultural services.

Participants repeatedly used the phrase “community ownership” during the interviews. It’s critical to genuinely engage communities in the development and testing of communication messages, images and videos. It’s also critical we work with different communities to identify the best ways to pass on information.

And when it comes down to it, word of mouth messages and conversations may be the most effective way to get people involved with the COVID vaccine program.

By supporting the development of community ambassadors to address misinformation and concerns about vaccine safety at a local level, the government will have the best chance of ensuring information reaches those who need it.The Conversation

Holly Seale, Associate professor, UNSW; Abela Mahimbo, Lecturer in Public Health, University of Technology Sydney; Ben Harris-Roxas, Associate Professor, UNSW, and Nadia Chaves, Casual Academic, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees



File 20170424 24654 1oq9mss
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Sally Baker, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, University of Newcastle

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead. The Conversation

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension,
prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?

  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?

  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?

  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

Equating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

Sally Baker, Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is English Killing Other Languages?


The link below is to an article that includes an embedded video in which the popularity of English is looked at as a cause for the death of other languages. Worth a look.

For more visit:
http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/is-the-popularity-of-english-killing-other-languages_b81444

Article & Infographic: Dialects of the USA


The link below is to a very interesting article and infographic that outlines the various dialects of the US language (yes, I said language – it is different to how many people speak the queen’s English – said tongue in cheek of course… I am a republican in the Australian sense).

For more visit:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/09/dialect-map-of-the-us-region-aschmann_n_3245496.html

Pastor, Church Official Shot Dead in Nigeria


Muslim militants of Boko Haram blamed for killings in Borno state.

JOS, Nigeria, June 10 (CDN) — Muslim extremists from the Boko Haram sect on Tuesday (June 7) shot and killed a Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) pastor and his church secretary in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state.

The Rev. David Usman, 45, and church secretary Hamman Andrew were the latest casualties in an upsurge of Islamic militancy that has engulfed northern Nigeria this year, resulting in the destruction of church buildings and the killing and maiming of Christians.

The Rev. Titus Dama Pona, pastor with the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Maiduguri, told Compass that Pastor Usman was shot and killed by the members of the Boko Haram near an area of Maiduguri called the Railway Quarters, where the slain pastor’s church is located.

Pona said Christians in Maiduguri have become full of dread over the violence of Boko Haram, which seeks to impose sharia (Islamic law) on northern Nigeria.

“Christians have become the targets of these Muslim militants – we no longer feel free moving around the city, and most churches no longer carry out worship service for fear of becoming targets of these unprovoked attacks,” Pona said.

Officials at COCIN’s national headquarters in Jos, Plateau state, confirmed the killing of Pastor Usman. The Rev. Logan Gongchi of a COCIN congregation in Kerang, Jos, told Compass that area Christians were shocked at the news.

Gongchi said he attended Gindiri Theological College with Pastor Usman beginning in August 2003, and that both of them were ordained into pastoral ministry on Nov. 27, 2009.

“We knew him to be very gentle, an introvert, who was always silent in the class and only spoke while answering questions from our teachers,” Gongchi said. “He had a simple lifestyle and was easygoing with other students. He was very accommodating and ready at all times to withstand life’s pressures – this is in addition to being very jovial.”

Gongchi described Usman as “a pastor to the core because of his humility. I remember he once told me that he was not used to working with peasant farmers’ working tools, like the hoe. But with time he adapted to the reality of working with these tools on the farm in the school.”

Pastor Usman was excellent at counseling Christians and others while they were at the COCIN theological college, Gongchi said, adding that the pastor greatly encouraged him when he was suffering a long illness from 2005 to 2007.

“His encouraging words kept my faith alive, and the Lord saw me overcoming my ill health,” he said. “So when I heard the news about his murder, I cried.”

 

Motives

The late pastor had once complained about the activities of Boko Haram, saying that unless the Nigerian government faced up to the challenge of its attacks, the extremist group would consume the lives of innocent persons, according to Gongchi.

“Pastor Usman once commented on the activities of the Boko Haram, which he said has undermined the church not only in Maiduguri, but in Borno state,” Gongchi said. “At the time, he urged us to pray for them, as they did not know how the problem will end.”

Gongchi advised the Nigerian government to find a lasting solution to Boko Haram’s violence, which has also claimed the lives of moderate Muslim leaders and police.

The Railway Quarters area in Maiduguri housed the seat of Boko Haram until 2009, when Nigerian security agencies and the military demolished its headquarters and captured and killed the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and some of his followers.

The killing of Pastor Usman marked the second attack on his church premises by the Muslim militants. The first attack came on July 29, 2009, when Boko Haram militants burned the church building and killed some members of his congregation.

On Monday (June 6), the militants had bombed the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, along with other areas in Maiduguri, killing three people. In all, 14 people were killed in three explosions at the church and police stations, and authorities have arrested 14 people.

The Boko Haram name is interpreted figuratively as “against Western education,” but some say it can also refer to the forbidding of the Judeo-Christian faith. They say the word “Boko” is a corruption in Hausa language for the English word “Book,” referring to the Islamic scripture’s description of Jews and Christians as “people of the Book,” while “Haram” is a Hausa word derived from Arabic meaning, “forbidding.”

Boko Haram leaders have openly declared that they want to establish an Islamic theocratic state in Nigeria, and they reject democratic institutions, which they associate with Christianity. Their bombings and suspected involvement in April’s post-election violence in Nigeria were aimed at stifling democracy, which they see as a system of government built on the foundation of Christian scripture.

Christians as well as Muslims suffered many casualties after supporters of Muslim presidential candidate Muhammudu Buhari lost the April 16 federal election to Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian. Primarily Muslim rioters claimed vote fraud, although international observers praised the polls as the fairest since 1999.

Nigeria’s population of more than 158.2 million is almost evenly divided between Christians, who make up 51.3 percent of the population and live mainly in the south, and Muslims, who account for 45 percent of the population and live mainly in the north. The percentages may be less, however, as those practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the total population, according to Operation World.

Report From Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org/

 

Hindu Extremists in India Beat Pastor Unconscious


Evangelist was traveling with sons from one village to another.

NEW DELHI, April 22 (CDN) — Hindu extremists beat a pastor and evangelist unconscious in front of his sons earlier this month in Madhya Pradesh state.

Ramesh Devda, 30, from Dhadhniya, Meghnagar district, said he was attacked on April 4 at about 11 a.m. after leading a prayer meeting in Chikklia village. He said he was on his way to Bhajidongra, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat states, by motorcycle with his two sons, 10-year-old Elias, and 8-year-old Shimon, to lead another prayer meeting.

When he reached Raseda village, he said, suddenly three people on two motorcycles blocked his way and forced him to stop.

“Suddenly out of nowhere these three men appeared in two motorcycles – they blocked me and tilted my motorcycle,” Pastor Devda told Compass. “We fell down. They were carrying big bamboo sticks and clubs. They started beating me, and then they called and three more men came and started to attack me.”

He said he was thankful that his sons were spared from beating, though his older son sustained a leg injury in the course of the attack.

“They were angry at me and were threatening to kill me and were warning me not to come to their area again,” he said. “My sons were screaming at the top of their voices, and they were afraid. One of the men hit me on my forehead with a big bamboo stick, cracking my skull. The others were also beating me on my body, especially my back with bamboo sticks.”

A blow to the forehead temporarily blinded him, he said.

“My eyes were darkened, and I fell down, and they proceeded to beat me even more,” he said. “The men were also abusive in the foulest language that I had heard, and they were drunk.”

People passing by heard the two boys crying out and came to help, and the attackers fled, he said, leaving the unconscious pastor and his sons.

“I do not know who helped me, as I was unconscious,” Pastor Devda said. “But I came to know later that local Christians also came in and called the emergency helpline. As a result, an ambulance came, which then took me to the hospital.”

He was taken to Anita Surgical Hospital on Station Road in Dahod, Gujarat. There a physician identified only as Dr. Bharpoda told him that he had fractured his skull.

“I am being treated for my wounds now, but there is still a lot of pain,” Pastor Devda said.

A Christian for 15 years, Pastor Devda has been in Christian leadership for 11 years and now serves with the Christian Reformed Fellowship of India. He has two other children, Ashish and 4-year-old Sakina, and his wife Lalita, 28, is active with him in Christian service.

Pastor Devda leads congregations in Chikklia, Bhajidongra and Dhadhniya villages.

“I have heard that I was attacked because the people of Chikklia did not like me conducting the Sunday service there,” he said. “The people who beat me up do belong to a Hindu fundamentalist outfit, and some believers in Chikklia know them. I can recognize them if I see them again.”

He said, however, that he does not want to file a First Information Report (FIR) with police.

“There is no one supporting me or standing with me in my village or my mission, and I am myself fearful, as I have to continue to minister to these very people,” Pastor Devda said. “I know my attack was pre-planned, but I do not want to report it to the police.”

A Christian co-worker from Rajasthan was also attacked about a month ago in equally brutal fashion, he said, but also refrained from filing an FIR because of fear of repercussions.

Vijayesh Lal, secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission, said the tribal belt that extends to the border areas of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, has been a hot spot for anti-Christian activity since the late 1990s.

“Only recently a 65-year-old evangelist was beaten and stripped by Hindu extremists,” he said. “It is a worrisome trend, and one that should be dealt with not only by the government but by the secular media and civil society in general.”

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

India Briefs


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, India, April 15 (CDN) — Police on April 10 arrested a pastor and other Christians of the New India Church in Mysore after some 25 Hindu extremists from the Sreeram Sena attacked their Sunday service, accusing them of forcible conversions, reported the Mathrubhumi daily. Pastor Vinod Chacko was leading the service when the Hindu nationalists barged into the church, stopped the prayer service and complained to police of alleged forcible conversions. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists along with police detained the worshippers inside the church building, including 20 women and 10 children, taking down personal details about them and asking them whether they were paid money or otherwise lured to attend. Police also seized vehicles belonging to the church and those attending the service. Police charged Pastor Chacko, his wife Asha and others identified only as Sabu, Simon and Sayazu under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code with “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.”

New Delhi – A mob of about 150 Hindu extremists on April 9 attacked a Christian worship meeting in Bhajanpura, East Delhi, beating Christians with clubs and stones, including women and children. Pastor Solomon King told Compass that the Assembly of God church organized an open-air “Festival of Deliverance” meeting at which he was speaking; there were about 150 people in the arena when he arrived with 40 choir members. After the meeting began at about 6 p.m., some present suddenly shouted “Jai Shri Ram [Praise Lord Ram]” and started beating the Christians. Two Christians identified only as Prabhu and Abhisek sustained head injuries and received hospital treatment. Pastor King, his wife and other Christians also suffered bruises. The intolerant Hindus also destroyed furniture, a sound system, a generator and some Christians’ vehicle. The Christians had received permission from government officials to conduct the worship meeting, and five police officers were on duty to protect it; the Hindu extremists also severely beat them. The attack lasted for about an hour before police reinforcements arrived, and the extremists fled. Police were able to arrest two of the assailants.

Madhya Pradesh – An enraged mob of Hindu extremists on April 7 stormed into the prayer meeting of a Christian Assembly house church shouting anti-Christian slogans and filed a police complaint of forceful conversion against those present in Sagar. The Hindu extremists accused Pastor Joy Thomas Philip of forceful conversion, Pastor C.P. Mathew of Bhopal told Compass. Police arrived and took Pastor Philip and three other Christians into custody for questioning but claimed it was a protective measure. After area Christian leaders’ intervention, the Christians were released on bail on April 9.

Karnataka – Mulki Circle police officials on April 4 forcibly took church documents from Hebron Assembly Church in Mulki and told the pastor not to allow any Hindus to enter. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that officials identified only as Inspector Shivaprakash and Sub-Inspector Neelakanta, along with five police officers, verbally abused Pastor I.D. Prasanna and harshly denigrated church activities. Police officials questioned Pastor Prasanna for three hours, telling him what church activities he can and cannot undertake, and threatening to close the church if he disobeyed. They also ordered the pastor to give detailed information about the families that attended the church service.

Karnataka – Police in Shimago on April 3 detained Pastor Abraham K.G. and a Christian identified only as Eerappa for their faith in Christ. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Hindu extremists led by area Bajrang Dal member Subbraya Shetty interrupted the worship meeting of the Jehovah Nizzi church and warned them to stop meeting. The extremists had been harassing the pastor since March 27, reported the GCIC. As the April 3 service started at about 10:30 a.m., a sub-inspector from the Hosanagara police station arrived in a Jeep with three other police officers to make the arrests. When the Christians asked about the reasons, the officials said without basis that the Christians were using abusive language. Later that evening, police released the Christians without charges after taking a statement from them pledging that they would conduct no future worship meetings – and that they should leave the area.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Religious ‘Competition’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org