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 

Christmas could be cancelled by British government


Christmas could be cancelled by a bill being put forward by the Labour government, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have said, reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

In a letter to MPs, Monsignor Andrew Summersgill, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said that Harriet Harmon’s Equality Bill will have a "chilling effect" on local councils, town halls and other organizations clamping down on Christmas festivities for fear of offending people of other religions.

The Equality Bill combines all previous equality legislation in the U.K., and includes a range of new provisions.

"Under existing legislation," Summersgill wrote, "we have seen the development of a risk-averse culture with outcomes as ridiculous as reports of a local authority instructing tenants to take down Christmas lights in case they might offend Muslim neighbours, or of authorities removing the word Christmas out of cultural sensitivity to everyone except Christians.

"If this bill is serious about equality, everything possible must be done to avoid it having a chilling effect on religious expression and practice."

The Christian Institute, Britain’s leading Christian political lobby group, has listed incidents where public displays of Christianity at Christmas have already come under attack. Councils around Britain are removing all references to the name "Christmas" from their 2009 events. Birmingham City Council has changed the name of this year’s light-switching-on event to the generic "Winterval." Last November an attempt by Oxford City Council to drop Christmas from the title of the city’s celebrations was condemned by both residents and religious leaders.

The Christian Institute complained about the bill, saying that councils "are already over-zealous in applying equality laws." The bill, they said, "will make this worse."

In fact, some of the Labour government’s closest advisors have already urged it to abolish public displays of a Christian origin at Christmas. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which has shaped many Labour party policies, said in 2007 that Christmas "should be downgraded to help race relations."

The equality legislation leads only to the law favoring aggrieved minority lobby groups over the existing Christian culture, the Christian Institute says. The group pointed to the closure and forced secularization of several of Britain’s Catholic adoption agencies under similar legislation, the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) of the 2007 Equality Act.

Under the SORs, they said, "the rights of children have been trumped by the rights of homosexual adults. Any agency which refuses to do homosexual adoptions becomes a target for closure."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Euthanasia bill unexpectedly defeated in South Australia


In a surprise victory for pro-life advocates, South Australia’s Upper House has narrowly voted down an amendment to their palliative care legislation that would have legalized euthanasia, reports Patrick B. Craine, LifeSiteNews.com.

The bill was proposed by Greens member Mark Parnell. It was expected to pass 11-10, with the support of independent member Ann Bressington, the swing vote. Bressington opted to abstain, however, after amendments she had sought failed. This abstention would have resulted in a tie, meaning that Upper House President Bob Sneath would vote to pass the bill.

In the end, however, member David Ridway announced to the shock of pro-life observers that personal reasons had led him to change his mind, and he voted against the bill.

Parnell has stated his intention to make another attempt at legalizing euthanasia after the state elections in March 2010. With the upcoming retirement of two pro-life members, pro-life advocates have indicated that such an attempt has a real risk of succeeding.

The UK-based anti-euthanasia group SPUC Pro-Life called the vote "a victory for civilised values."

Anthony Ozimic, SPUC’s communications manager and an expatriate Australian, stated: "Those seeking to develop civilised values which respect the sanctity of human life should be encouraged by this vote.

"In spite of all the money, media support and propaganda of the euthanasia lobby, many politicians recognise the dangers to public safety in introducing such legislation. This victory for civilised values joins the recent defeat of a similar bill in Tasmania, as well as the repeated votes by the British House of Lords against assisted suicide."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Australian Territory Approves Same-Sex Civil Ceremonies


By Patrick B. Craine

CANBERRA, Australia, November 11, 2009 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has legalized civil partnership ceremonies for homosexuals.

Same-sex couples in the ACT have been able to register their union since last year, but were not permitted a ceremony.

The legislature of the territory, where the nation’s parliament is located, passed the bill on Wednesday, following an amendment banning opposite-sex couples from obtaining the civil unions.  The bill was moved by the ACT’s Greens party.

The ACT’s amendment was passed so as to satisfy federal requirements that such unions not mimic marriage.

"We understand that this is not same-sex marriage," said Shane Rattenbury, the Greens member who drafted the bill.  "This legislation is another step along the road to full equality for same-sex couples in Australia, and we are delighted that the assembly has passed it today."

The federal Commonwealth Parliament, which has the power to override legislation passed in the country’s two territories, has strongly opposed same-sex "marriage," and the ACT legislature has been fighting with them for same-sex civil unions since 2006.

That year, the ACT passed legislation approving same-sex civil unions, but their attempt was struck down by then-Governor General Michael Jeffery on the advice of then-Attorney General Philip Ruddock.

The law would have effectively granted same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples, simply leaving out the term "marriage."  At the time, then-Prime Minister John Howard said the ACT’s move sought to undermine the nation’s 2004 Marriage Amendment Bill, which established marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and specifically excluded same-sex "marriage."

Regarding the current bill, one member of the ACT’s legislature, Vicki Dunne, who serves as shadow attorney-general, predicted that the federal government would stop the bill.  "It is almost certain the Commonwealth will intervene," she told the Telegraph.  "It still sounds like a marriage and it still feels like a marriage and therefore it probably is a marriage."

Last year, the federal government granted new legal and financial benefits to same-sex couples by making changes to about 100 federal laws.  Nevertheless, they continued to declare their intention to uphold the true definition of marriage.

"The government believes that marriage is between a man and a woman so it won’t amend the marriage act," said Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

Australia’s Senate has now initiated an inquiry into the Marriage Amendment Bill, however, hearing arguments this week both for and against same-sex "marriage."  The submissions the committee received, totalling more than 20,000, were against same-sex "marriage" by a ratio of two to one.

This Report from LifeSiteNews.com

www.LifeSiteNews.com

Draft legislation in Russia might make evangelism impossible


A draft legislation introduced this month threatens to make evangelism nearly impossible in Russia. A date has not yet been released for further ruling on the law, but in the meantime, evangelicals express concern, reports MNN.

“Only religious groups that have been registered in Russia for at least 15 year will be allowed to engage in any evangelistic or missionary activity,” says Bob Provost of Slavic Gospel Association. “For example, if a North American church were to send a youth group over to help with a summer camp (which happens a lot), or if they were to send over a music group to help with evangelistic activity, it would not be allowed. Foreigners in Russia on a temporary visa would not be permitted.”

The legislation also outlaws indigenous churches from any missionary activity within hospitals, orphanages, or homes for the aged. Children, under the new legislation, will be prohibited from attending religious activities without specific permission by a parent or guardian. This part of the law, in particular, would devastate specific ministry opportunities.

“The single greatest evangelistic opportunity that the Church has there today comes at Christmas time when they’re able to hold Christmas events and invite children from the community,” explains Provost. “In many cases, parents and grandparents accompany their children to these meetings and find out that the lies that they’ve been hearing via the media or in the public schools against evangelical Christianity are not true.”

As if all of these restrictions were not limiting enough, the legislation forbids any “offers of material, social and other benefits,” leaving the range of prohibited activity almost completely open-ended.

If passed, anyone convicted of anything under this legislation (offering food to the poor, sharing the Gospel with a child, evangelizing on a short-term trip etc.) could be fined up to $517 USD. The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) has responded to the absurdity of the open-endedness of the draft legislation, but it does not appear as though the government has not appeared to have made any movement.

With all of these objectives brewing, an explanation as to “why” is appropriate. But so far, there doesn’t appear to be substantial reasoning. Provost suggests that the legislation may be in defense of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Although the Baptist Church is not growing astronomically in Russia, it is growing and may well be considered a threat.

“It’s evident to me that president Putin, when he came into power, put the government’s arm around the Orthodox Church again in order to unify the country,” says Provost. As a result, “Any religion that starts to get in the way of the Orthodox Church is going to be considered a threat, and steps are being taken to remove it.”

Amid all of the concern, the Church continues to live on in Russia. “605 men have been set apart and are ready to be sent as missionaries all over the former Soviet Union. We’re praying for partners who would help us send them,” says Provost. “Nine out of ten communities are still waiting for a Gospel witness presence. In other words, nine out of ten communities have never had a Bible teaching church.”

The RUECB is asking churches in Russia to fast and pray that the legislation would not be passed in any of the stages toward becoming law. Please pray with them.

Slavic Gospel Association will continue their work in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

New, More Dangerous Hindu Extremist Groups Emerge in India


Christians concerned as rightwing factions splinter to form militant outfits.

PUNE, India, October 29 (CDN) — After more than a decade of severe persecution, India’s Christian minority is growing increasingly concerned over the mushrooming of newer and deadlier Hindu extremist groups.

Gone are the days when Christians had to watch out only for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, which are closely linked with the most influential Hindu extremist umbrella organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). With voter support faltering for the RSS’s political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), moderate and extremist sections within the Hindu nationalist movement are blaming each other, and militant splinter groups have emerged.

Claiming to be breakaway factions of the RSS, new groups with even more extreme ideology are surfacing. The Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India), the Rashtriya Jagran Manch (National Revival Forum), the Sri Ram Sene (Army of god Rama), the Hindu Dharam Sena (Army for Hindu Religion) and the Sanatan Sanstha (Eternal Organization) have launched numerous violent attacks on Christian and Muslim minorities.

The Sri Ram Sene was one of the most active groups that launched a series of attacks on Christians and their property in and around Mangalore city in the southern state of Karnataka in August-September 2008, according to a report, “The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar,” published by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), in March 2009. In Jabalpur city in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, suspected extremists from the Abhinav Bharat attacked the Rhema Gospel Church on Sept. 28, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians. They had earlier attacked Pastor Sam Oommen and his family in the same city on Aug. 3.

The Hindu Dharam Sena has become especially terrifying for Christians in Jabalpur. Between 2006 and 2008, Jabalpur was plagued by at least three anti-Christian attacks every month, according to The Caravan magazine. In the western state of Gujarat and other parts of the country, the Rashtriya Jagran Manch has also violently attacked Christians, according to news website Counter Currents.

At an ecumenical meeting held in New Delhi on Saturday (Oct. 24), the secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes, said the rise of fundamentalism was “seriously worrying” the church in India. The meeting was held to discuss prospects for immediate enactment of federal legislation to counter religious extremism with the proposed Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill.

RSS ‘Too Mild’

The new groups, formed mostly by former members of RSS-connected outfits, find the Hindu nationalist conglomerate too “mild” to be able to create a nation with Hindu supremacy.

The Sri Ram Sene, mainly active in south India, was started by Pramod Muthalik after he was expelled in 2007 from the Bajrang Dal, one of the most radical groups in the RSS family, for being an extremist, according to the daily newspaper DNA. The Hindu Dharam Sena was started by Yogesh Agarwal, former worker of the Dharam Jagran Vibhag (Religion Revival Department) of the RSS, also in 2007, as he felt “the RSS did not believe in violence,” according to The Caravan. He had earlier launched the Dharam Sena, an offshoot of the RSS, in Madhya Pradesh and neighboring Chhattisgarh state in 2006.

The founding members of the Abhinav Bharat, which was started in Pune in 2006, also believe that the RSS is not militant enough. Outlook magazine notes that its members were planning to kill top leaders of the RSS for their inability to implement Hindu extremist ideology. The Rashtriya Jagran Manch, also a breakaway group of the RSS founded in 2007, has close links with the Abhinav Bharat.

Based out of Goa, a western state with a substantial number of Christians, the Sanatan Sanstha provides the ideological base for Hindu militant groups. It has close links with the Sri Ram Sene and publishes a periodical, Sanatan Prabhat, which occasionally spews hate against Christians.

Media reports warn of tensions due to the recent spurt in activity of the splinter groups.

“The hardliners are now getting into more extreme activities,” The Times of India daily quoted V.N. Deshmukh, former joint director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, as saying on Oct. 21.

The most extremist sections are disillusioned with the way the RSS is functioning, said Mumbai-based Irfan Engineer, Director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Most RSS cadres were mobilized with an ideology that called for elimination of minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians, he told Compass, adding that many of them were highly disappointed with the way the movement was being led.

He said the BJP was restricted when it led a coalition government at the federal level from 1998 to 2004, keeping it from effectively working towards a Hindu nation. A majority of the BJP’s allies in the National Democratic Alliance were not Hindu nationalists.

“One section of the [Hindu nationalist] movement believes in acquiring state power by participating in parliamentary democracy, and the other wants to create a Hindu nation by violent means,” Engineer said.

It is believed that the divide within the RSS family may deepen even further.

Analysts believe that Hindu nationalism is losing relevance in national politics, as was evident in the two successive defeats of the BJP in the 2004 and 2009 general elections. Consequently, the RSS and the BJP may distance themselves from the hard-line ideology or make it sound more inclusive and less militant.

After this year’s elections, the RSS increasingly has begun to talk about the threat China poses to India and the need for development in rural areas, instead of its pet issues like Islamist terrorism and Christian conversions. This has disappointed sections of the highly charged cadres even more, and the splintering may accelerate.

For the next few years, “we will see more new names and new faces but with the same ideology and inspiration,” said Anwar Rajan, secretary of the PUCL in Pune.

Whether the new groups truly have no connection with the RSS is not fully known – that appearance may be an RSS strategy to evade legal action, said Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.

He said relations between the RSS and the new groups can be compared with the ones between Maoist (extreme Marxist) rebels and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in India. While the CPI-M distances itself from Maoist violence, it speaks for the rebels whenever security forces crack down on them.

At base, the newer rightwing groups surely have the sympathy of the RSS, said Pune-based S.M. Mushrif, former Inspector General of Police in Maharashtra, who has been observing Hindu extremist groups for years.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Church Registration in Vietnam Inches Along


Assemblies of God obtains ‘operating license,’ but quest for recognition continues.

HO CHI MINH CITY, October 23 (CDN) — The Assemblies of God (AoG) in Vietnam on Monday (Oct. 19) received an “operating license,” which the government described as “the first step . . . before becoming officially legal.”

This operating license gives permission for all of the congregations of the Vietnam AoG to “carry on religious activity” anywhere in the country for the next year. During this time the church body must prepare a doctrinal statement, a constitution and bylaws and a four-year working plan to be approved by the government before being allowed to hold an organizing assembly. These steps, AoG leaders hope, would lead to legal recognition.

The operating license is the first one granted since five were granted two years ago. The last of those five churches, the Christian Fellowship Church, was finally allowed to hold its organizing assembly in late September. According to an internal 2008 government Protestant Training Manual obtained by church leaders, this assembly was delayed because authorities observed large discrepancies between the number of followers the group claimed and the actual number, as well as other “instability.”

Vietnam News Service reported on Sept. 29 that the Christian Fellowship Church has “30,000 believers nationwide.”

Should the AoG achieve legal recognition, it would be the ninth among some 70 Protestant groups in Vietnam and the seventh since new religion legislation touted to expedite registration was introduced in 2004.

The AoG quest was typically long, and it is not yet over. Though started in the early 1970s before the communist era, the denomination was deemed dormant by authorities after the communist takeover and restarted in 1989. Strangely, the Vietnamese religion law requires a church organization to have 20 years of stable organization before it can even be considered for legal recognition.

Though the AoG had been trying for years to register, only this year did it fulfill the 20-year requirement in the eyes of the government. Sources said AoG’s resistance to strong pressure by the government to eliminate a middle or district level of administration may also have contributed to the delay.

Ironically, the official government news report credits the Vietnam AoG with 40,000 followers, while denominational General Superintendent Samuel Lam told Compass the number is 25,000. He also said he hoped the advantages of registration would outweigh the disadvantages.

With no more operating licenses being granted, the future of registration is in a kind of limbo. Sources said a lower level of registration in which local authorities are supposed to offer permission for local congregations to carry on religious activities while the more complicated higher levels are worked out has largely failed. Only about 10 percent of the many hundreds of applications have received a favorable reply, they said, leaving most house churches vulnerable to arbitrary harassment or worse.

Leaders of all Protestant groups say that they continue to experience government resistance, as well as social pressure, whenever they preach Christ in new areas. They added that evidence is strong that the government’s aim is to contain Protestant growth.

Hmong Christians who fled the Northwest Mountainous Region for the Central Highlands a decade ago, developing very poor land in places such as Dak Nong, reported to Compass that they were singled out for land confiscation just when their fields became productive. They said ethnic Vietnamese made these land grabs with the complicity of the authorities, sometimes multiple times.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Oct. 19 that Vietnam has experienced a “sharp backsliding on religious freedom.” Among other incidents, HRW cited the late September crackdown on followers of Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Some 150 monks were forcibly evicted from his sect’s Bat Nha Monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, and 200 nuns fled in fear the next day. As in recent land disputes with Roman Catholics involving thousands of demonstrators, authorities hired local and imported thugs to do the deed to present the image that ordinary local people were upset with the religion.

After a visit to Vietnam in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States reinstate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the blacklist of religious liberty offenders. Vietnam had been on the list from 2004 until 2006.

The USCIRF, which experienced less government cooperation that on some previous visits,  observed that “Vietnam’s overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.”

Some key Protestant leaders describe themselves as weary and frustrated at what they termed the government’s lack of sincerity, extreme tardiness and outright duplicity regarding religious freedom. They too said they believe that the lifting of Vietnam’s CPC status was premature and resulted in the loss of a major incentive for Vietnam to improve religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Merkel: EU legislation does not curb religious freedom


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reassured evangelical Christians that European anti-discrimination legislation will not curb their freedom of worship and religious expression, reports Wolfgang Polzer, special to ASSIST News Service.

In an interview with three German evangelical media organizations she emphasized that EU anti-discrimination laws were only meant to prevent any disadvantages for specific groups. For example, older people should have the same opportunities as younger persons; women should have equal rights as well as people with special needs.

Anti-discrimination legislation is meant to strengthen equality, said Merkel. She was interviewed in Berlin by leading journalists of Evangeliums-Rundfunk (Gospel Radio), the media association KEP (Conference of Evangelical Publicists) and the news agency “idea”, all stationed in Wetzlar.

Merkel, raised in a vicar’s family in East Germany, called on Christians to refrain from despondency and put their trust in God. The power of their faith would enable them to weather difficult times and face the future with confidence.

The 55-year-old politician is also leader of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany and faces general elections on September 27. As she explained, the “C” in the name of her party serves as a foundation for operative politics.

“We regard every individual as God’s creation equipped with freedom and responsibility,” said Merkel. Politics was meant to create conditions in which the individual can develop his or her talents. The “C” was also a reminder of the need to preserve the integrity of creation.

Merkel emphasized the German obligation to protect the integrity of the state of Israel. The German government is also striving for progress in the peace effort. Merkel’s government supports a two-state-solution. This requires compromises on both sides, she said.

As the chancellor explained, a task force in the Foreign Office is working hard to bring light into the fate of a German Christian family abducted in Yemen in mid-June. Every effort was made to find out where the parents and their three children are and how they can be set free, said Merkel. She expressed her respect for volunteers helping to alleviate human suffering abroad.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

INDONESIA: CHRISTIANS CALL FOR REJECTION OF SHARIA-INSPIRED BILLS


Church leaders fear legislation will lead to religious intolerance; church, orphanage opposed.

JAKARTA, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – The Indonesian Council of Churches (PGI) has called for the rejection of two bills inspired by sharia (Islamic law).

The Halal Product Guarantee Bill and the Zakat Obligatory Alms Management Bill, both under consideration in the Indonesian parliament, cater to the needs of one religious group at the expense of others, violating Indonesia’s policy of pancasila or religious tolerance, said the Rev. Dr. A.A. Yewangoe, director of the PGI.

“National laws must be impartial and inclusive,” Yewangoe told Compass. “Since all laws are binding on all of the Indonesian people, they must be objective. Otherwise discrimination will result … The state has a duty to guard the rights of all its citizens, including freedom of religion.”

Dr. Lodewijk Gultom, head of PGI’s Law and Human Rights Department, pointed out that according to regulations on the formation of proposed laws, a bill cannot discriminate against any group of citizens. But the Halal product bill several times mentions sharia, as if Indonesia were an exclusively Muslim state, he said.

“If this bill is enforced, it will cause other religions to demand specific rights, and our sense of unity and common destiny will be lost,” Gultom said.

Gultom also said the bills were an attempt to resurrect the Jakarta Charter, a statement incorporated into Indonesia’s constitution in 1945 before it was quickly withdrawn. It declared that the newly-created state would be based on a belief in the one supreme God “with the obligation to live according to Islamic law for Muslims.”

Public opinion on the Jakarta Charter remains sharply divided, with some insisting that Islamic law is warranted because of the country’s Muslim majority, while others believe its implementation would disturb national unity.

Two members of Parliament, Constant Pongawa and Tiurlan Hutagaol, both from the Prosperous Peace Party, have requested the withdrawal of the Halal and Zakat bills to avoid creating conflict between Muslims and other religious groups.

“These bills are a step backward and will lead to the isolation of different religions,” agreed Ronald Naibaho, head of the North Sumatran chapter of the Indonesian Christian Youth Movement.

National church leaders have requested a meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to discuss the impact of these bills and a number of other discriminatory laws being applied at provincial levels across the country.

Church, Orphanage Closed

Muslim groups, meantime, recently moved to close more Christian institutions.

On July 21, following complaints from community groups, police forcibly dismantled a church in West Java on grounds that it did not have a building permit, while similar groups in East Java successfully lobbied for the closure of a Catholic orphanage claiming that it planned to “Christianize” local children.

Police in Bogor district, West Java, dismantled the temporary bamboo structure erected by the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan church in Parung Panjang on July 21. Church leaders insist that the church had long ago applied for a building permit that was not granted even though they had met all requirements, including obtaining permission from the Bogor Interfaith Harmony Forum.

“There are 234 buildings in Parung Panjang that lack building permits, including a mosque,” church elder Walman Nainggolan told Compass. “Why was our house of worship singled out?”

The church has filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia. Commissioner Johny Nelson Simanjuntak agreed to clarify the status of the church building permit with local officials and asked local police to permit peaceful worship as guaranteed by the constitution.

Separately, a group of Muslims lobbied for the closure of a Catholic orphanage for crippled children in Batu, in the Malang district of East Java, stating concern that the facility would become a covert vehicle for “Christianization.” In response to demonstrations in front of the mayor’s office in October 2008 and June 2009 and complaints from 10 different Muslim religious and community organizations, Batu Mayor Eddy Rumpoko on June 19 rescinded a building permit issued to the Catholic Bhakti Luhur Foundation and ordered that construction cease immediately.

The foundation operates 41 orphanages serving approximately 700 children with special needs.

“We are greatly saddened by this action,” the Rev. Laurentius Heru Susanto, a local vicar, told Compass. “The home was meant to serve the people. There was no other purpose.”

Report from Compass Direct News