Summer is a great time of the year – I love it. Summer has generally been the best time for getting into the Great Outdoors and exploring Australia. Summer has brought me many great memories – so many that it is hard to place one as being THE favorite summer memory. However, there is one summer memory that means more to me now than a lot of others, for one particular reason. It was in a November (summer in Australia) a few years ago now, that I traveled to Gloucester Tops with Bec and we enjoyed the bush, the river and the waterfalls together. It was a special time. It is even more special to me now because Bec died 2 years ago (June 25) and this is one of the greatest memories I have and times I spent with her. It was a great day I will never forget.
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
Britain is one of the least religious nations in Europe, according to a major survey by the European Union to be published next month, reports Jeremy Reynalds, correspondent for ASSIST News Service.
Writing for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Lois Rogers said that according to the study, only 12 per cent of Britons feel they “belong” to a church, compared with 52 per cent in France.
It also found that the UK has one of the highest rates of “fuzzy faith,” or people who have an abstract belief in God and a poorly defined loyalty to Christian traditions.
The Telegraph reported that the study, conducted as part of the influential EU-funded European Social Survey, will be seen as an indicator of a shift in attitudes and values.
Professor David Voas, of Manchester University’s Institute for Social Change, who led the project, said the UK was involved in what he called a “long process of disestablishment,” with Christianity gradually being written out of laws and political institutions.
“Christian faith will soon have no role among our traditional establishments or lawmakers,” the Telegraph reported he said. “It remains to be seen for example, how much longer bishops will be allowed to sit in the House of Lords.”
The Telegraph said he added, “Fuzzy faith is a staging post on the road to non-religion. Adults still have childhood memories of being taken to church, and they maintain a nostalgic affection for Christianity but that is dying out. They still go along with the some kind of religious identity but they’re not passing it on to the next generation, and people who aren’t raised in a religion don’t generally start one as adults.”
However, Professor Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University, who is leading a long-term £8.5 million government research program on the role of religion in society, disputed Voas’ conclusions.
“Just because you’re not religious, it doesn’t mean you’re not spiritual or moral,” the Telegraph reported she said. “A lot of people simply don’t want to take the whole package of religion on board.”
The Telegraph reported that the study, to be published in the European Sociological Review next month, not only charts the declining interest in religion of successive generations, it also concludes that there is no evidence to support the idea that interest in religion resurfaces as people age.
The Telegraph said that while “new wave” religions like Scientology, Kaballah or the Moonie faith, have received considerable media coverage because of their association with Tom Cruise, Madonna and other celebrities, the number of followers remains tiny.
The survey, which questioned more than 30,000 people in 22 countries, found only five nations – Slovenia, Sweden, Norway, Holland and Belgium – reported lower levels of church membership than Britain.
The Telegraph said some observers have argued that the Anglican church ought to do more to retain the “fuzzy faithful,” and draw the uncommitted back into the pews.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Christians meet with Al-Maliki, ask for troops and provincial voting rights.
ISTANBUL, October 19 (Compass Direct News) – Amid escalating violence against Christians, Iraqi church leaders have appealed directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for increased efforts to curb the continuing attacks In Mosul.
In a meeting with Al-Maliki, 10 heads of Iraqi churches urged the prime minister on Thursday (Oct. 16) to send the army to Mosul to help the approximately 1,000 police that were dispatched this past week to keep watch over Christians in the city.
Church leaders said police efforts to curb violence were insufficient and more needed to be done to stabilize the city, from which an estimated 1,500 families have fled following recent killings of Christians.
Al-Maliki assured the church heads that he would do whatever was in his power in cooperation with them and that he hoped to send soldiers to Mosul “immediately,” said Shlemon Warduni, an auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean Church in Bagdad present at the meeting.
“He is upset and he’s sorry for what is happening,” said Warduni. “He is going to do whatever he can in cooperation with those who work with him.”
Members of the Christian communities believe that the police already sent to the city have made little difference and more forces are needed to ensure peace.
“I hope they will follow it up with more action; that they will continue as they said themselves until there is peace,” said Warduni. “We firmly ask for the army to be sent in the hopes that peace will come back and people will return to their homes.”
Father Basher Warda of St. Peter’s Seminary, spoke by phone to Compass with similar urgency. Government officials have visited Mosul and the victims promising to help, “but there is nothing,” said Fr. Warda. “A few initiatives here and there, but they cannot correspond to the whole crisis.”
He pointed out how no military spokesman has said Mosul is now secure, leaving only the government’s promises.
“The whole system needs to be reconsidered,” Fr. Warda said. “In a crisis the government should not take any holiday or rest, but they said, ‘We will see what to do in the coming days.’ But it’s not a matter of coming days; it’s a matter of families who have left everything behind.”
Families are still fleeing as threats, bombings and deaths persist in Mosul, according to Fr. Warda. He said 20 percent of the displaced people he has spoken to said they had been directly threatened before they fled Mosul. Others described how they witnessed threats against their neighbors, “the killing of a man, or a father and his son,” in their streets.
“These [accounts] … show there is something planned to evacuate Christians form Mosul,” he said. “They say: ‘We cannot risk it.’”
Change in Parliament
It is not clear who is behind the attacks on Christians in Mosul, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have been conducting operations against the Sunni militant group al-Qaeda.
The displacement of Christians follows comes on the heels of an Iraqi parliamentary vote to drop a clause in its new provincial election law, Article 50, that protected rights of minorities by guaranteeing their representation on provincial councils.
The change earlier this month sparked protests from Christians in Mosul, which some believe have fueled the attacks on the Christian community.
In their meeting with Al-Maliki, church community leaders also pleaded for the re-instatement of Article 50. Al-Maliki assured them he would bring it to the attention of Parliament in the next session, Warduni said.
Although unwilling to draw direct links to the demonstrations, Fr. Warda did tell Compass that he thought the attacks were coordinated.
“Maybe it’s a coincidence, and maybe it’s an occasion for violence,” said Fr. Warda. “But whatever the reason was, it looks like there was a plan [for the violence]. We cannot say it’s just a coincidence, it happened in such a quick way.”
He called the effort to clear Christians out of Mosul, a “massive task.”
“We are talking about 1,700 families who have fled in nine days,” he said.
In the wake of attacks on churches and individuals, Iraqi Christians have fled to surrounding villages leaving homes and businesses.
Some of Mosul’s refugees have sought shelter across the border in either Turkey or Syria. It is the small and unprepared villages surrounding the city, however, that have borne the brunt of the displacement, according to Fr. Warda.
For now, the primary concern of church leaders is the safe return of those who have fled.
“[Mosul is] their history, their heritage, memories are there. Every beautiful memory is there. We have to do something,” said Fr. Warda. He said those he spoke to were too afraid to go back to their homes and did not know if they could trust the government for their security.
Asked whether he thought Mosul would lose its entire Christian population, Fr. Warda said, “I don’t care to think about it, because it would be a tragedy for all people. The choices are so limited. My concern now is for Christians who are leaving.”
Although “hopeful” about the situation of Mosul’s Christian community, Warduni did not hesitate to criticize what he calls the “silence” of the international community on the human rights of Iraq’s Christian community.
“I want to tell the developed world that from the outset no one has said anything,” he said. “No one is talking about the rights of Christians and minorities in Iraq. We are waiting for support from the outside, at least as human beings not only as Christians.”
Report from Compass Direct News