Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law

Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.


‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.


Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”



Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Victims of Bomb Blast in Israel Recovering as Suspect Indicted

Messianic Jews hope for punishment from courts, mercy from God, for confessed killer.

ISTANBUL, November 13 (CDN) — One morning during the week of March 10, 2008 in Ariel, Israel, David Ortiz opened his Bible randomly, read the words on the pages that opened before him and was filled with dread.

“I opened the book to Jeremiah, and a verse jumped out, “Ortiz said, referring to Jeremiah 9:21: “Death has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses; it has cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the public squares.”

“I was afraid,” he said. “It was given to me like a promise, but of a different kind.”

For weeks, Ortiz had felt a premonition that something horrible was going to happen to him or his family. Six months prior, while in Norway, Ortiz watched a violent storm rip over the countryside. The wind tore out trees and threw them across a field. But still, through it all, some trees survived. Ortiz felt God was using the storm to speak to him.

“The ones that are rooted are the ones that remain,” he said.

On March 20, 2008, Ortiz’s fears came to pass. When his 15-year-old son lifted the lid of a Purim basket, left anonymously as a gift at their Ariel apartment, a bomb inside the basket exploded.

The bomb was devastating. It damaged the Ortiz family apartment and destroyed much of what they owned. When young Ami Ortiz was taken to the hospital, he was blind, covered with blood and burns and full of needles and screws contained in the bomb. The doctors told his mother, Leah Ortiz, that Ami was “Anush.”

“Literally, in Hebrew it means the spirit is leaving the body,” she said.

Now, 20 months later, Ami is 16, back in school and playing basketball. And yesterday the man that police say committed the crime was indicted for attempted murder.

Other than what has been released in court proceedings, little is known about Jack Teitel, the man accused of bombing the Ortiz family. One thing is certain – he believes he was acting in accordance with the will of God. Walking into court, the 37-year-old, U.S.-born West Bank settler shouted that God was proud of him.

“It was a pleasure and honor to serve my God,” Teitel reportedly said. “God is proud of what I have done. I have no regrets.”

Police said that Teitel is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish nationalist who picked out his targets based on his nationalist philosophy. Along with the Ortiz case, police said Teitel is responsible for the June 1997 shooting death of Samir Bablisi, a Palestinian taxi driver who was found in his cab with a single bullet wound to his head. Two months later, police said, Teitel shot Isa Jabarin, a Palestinian shepherd who was giving Teitel driving directions to Jerusalem.

Police also said that Teitel attempted to burn down a monastery and unsuccessfully planted several bombs. He is also accused of the September 2008 bombing of Zeev Sternhell of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bombing left the emeritus history professor slightly wounded.

Teitel has told police he was trying to kill David Ortiz, pastor of a church of Messianic Jews called Congregation of Ariel, not injure his son.

In all, Teitel has been indicted for two cases of pre-meditated murder, three cases of attempted murder, carrying a weapon, manufacturing a weapon, possession of illegal weapons and incitement to commit violence.

Adi Keidar, Teitel’s attorney, reportedly said his client is “mentally unstable.” He cited Teitel’s alleged confession to acts he did not commit. After a psychiatric evaluation by the state, Teitel was deemed fit to stand trial. Keidar is representing Teitel or behalf of the Honenu organization, a nationalistic law firm endorsed by Mordechai Eliyahu, a rabbi known for his far-right Orthodox views.

Honenu is known for defending, among others, Ami Popper. Popper was convicted in 1990 for shooting seven Palestinian workers who were waiting for a ride at a day labor pick-up site. Popper’s attack, like all others cited in Honenu’s website, was said to come “in response” to Palestinian aggression. Despite numerous attempts to contact Keidar, he could not be reached for comment.

David Ortiz said he is not surprised by Teitel’s claim that God is proud of him. Ortiz cited biblical verses where the early Christians were warned that one day people would kill them and think that they were doing the will of God. Teitel, Ortiz said, saw him as an enemy of the nation of Israel.

“He saw me and the professor as false prophets,” Ortiz said.

Police have brought no evidence linking Teitel to any other co-conspirator. But Leah Ortiz said she thinks Teitel worked with others. Teitel’s neighbor, Yosef Espinoza, was brought in for questioning and later released. Teitel does not speak Hebrew, but when he was arrested he was distributing handouts written in Hebrew criticizing homosexuals in Israel.

When his apartment was raided, police found a cache of illegal weapons he has been indicted for owning. Ortiz also said that a recording tape from a closed-circuit television camera taken on the day of the bombing shows Teitel was driven to the Ortiz apartment by another person.

Regardless, Leah Ortiz scoffs at the claim that Teitel was politically motivated. Instead, she said, he used politics and religion as a foil to justify murder.

“He is a serial killer,” she said.

In spite of all the pain that the Ortiz family has gone through, Leah Ortiz said she has seen much good come from the tragedy, including miraculous healings. She said that the bombing has helped soften the opinion of people in Israel toward Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the Jewish prophets.

“It has made them face the facts of how they see Jesus,” she said.

Howard Bass, a leader of a Messianic congregation in Beer Sheva, Israel, said he isn’t so sure.

“It’s not that simple,” he said, adding that such attacks may help tolerant people to eschew violence, but that others will actually be encouraged by the bombings. “It makes people aware of how far they [people set against the Messianic Jews] will be willing to go and abhor them. It’s bringing things to light and forcing people to make a decision: What is good and what is evil?”

Hostile Environment

Bass himself was a victim of at least one attack by anti-missionary, Orthodox extremists. On Dec. 24, 2005, several hundred Orthodox Jews mobbed an outdoor service held by Bass. The mob destroyed church equipment, terrorized congregants and threw Bass into a baptismal pool.

Bass has since sued Yad L’Achim, an Orthodox, anti-missionary organization he said is responsible for inciting the attack. A court decision in the case is due later this month.

On its website, Yad L’Achim asserts that missionaries are “devious” and are trying to “destroy the Jewish people.” The organization makes no distinction in its website between missionaries and Messianic Jews. The site also goes as far as to accuse Messianic Jews of “playing the victim to the hilt” in reference to the Ortiz bombing.

Despite numerous attempts to reach members of Yad L’Achim, no one was made available for comment.

According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2009 issued by the U.S. Department of State, there are 10,000 Messianic Jews in Israel. The report documents several cases of violence against Messianic Jews, including one case on May 15 in which “Ultra-Orthodox residents of the Tel Aviv suburb of Rehovot attacked and beat a group of Messianic Jews who were handing out New Testament pamphlets on the street.”

Additionally, Bass cites a book published this week in Israel entitled, “The King’s Torah.” Bass said the book encourages the killing of gentiles and anyone else deemed to be a threat to Israel.

“We’re seeing a spirit rising,” Bass said, “where they feel they have a legitimate right to kill anyone who threatens the Jewish state.”

Mentioning the book, David Ortiz agreed with Bass, calling the bombing and recent anti-Christian aggression “a shadow of things to come.”

As for what the Ortiz family wishes for Teitel, Leah Ortiz said she hopes he will receive a sentence that is “equal to his crime.” Because Israel has no death penalty, this very likely would mean life in prison.

Regardless of what happens in court, members of the Ortiz family say they have forgiven Teitel.  David Ortiz hopes one day to sit down face-to-face with Teitel and talk. He said he hopes Teitel will become another Apostle Paul.

“There is something inside him that makes him want to kill people. If God has had mercy on me, maybe he’ll have mercy on others,” Ortiz said. “The Lord forgave David and many people in the Bible – my goal and my prayer for him is that he will repent and be saved.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

4th century biblical manuscript now available online

The British Library has announced that the pages of 4th century biblical manuscript called the Sinaiticus Codex have been scanned and posted online after four years of work, reports Catholic News Agency.

The manuscript was written in Greek and dates to the time of the expansion of Christianity under Constantine. It can now be viewed with translations in English, German and Russian at www.codexsinaiticus.org.

For centuries it was kept at the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, until it was divided up in the 19th century and sent to the University of Leipzig library in Germany, the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg and the British Library. Some portions of the manuscript remained at the Mount Sinai monastery.

The project to digitalize the manuscript cost more than one million dollars.

The Codex, written by three scribes, also includes texts from the 1st century and is one of the best preserved manuscripts of the era.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


Christians fear police coercing them to drop charges of Muslim attack on monastery.

ISTANBUL, May 29 (Compass Direct News) – Police this month released two Copts wrongfully arrested for killing a Muslim during an attack on Abu Fana monastery in Egypt in May 2008, but then re-arrested them as part of an intimidation campaign against Christians, their lawyer said.

More worrisome to the Christians in custody is that their fate most likely will be decided outside of the justice system, in “reconciliation meetings.” The state prosecutor investigating the case has not announced the results of his findings on the true identity of the murderer, as he is awaiting the outcome of the out-of-court talks between Copts and local Muslims.

Brothers Refaat and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo have been incarcerated for a year. On May 3 the two brothers were released on bail, but the Minya State Security Services issued a new detention order and had them arrested on May 20 for “security reasons.” Egyptian security forces can incarcerate people without reason according to provisions in criminal law.

A criminal court in Cairo ordered the release of the Fawzy Abdo brothers twice, but each time the interior ministry issued another arrest order. Advocacy groups say the interior ministry is working with local police and the investigating officer to keep them detained, force a confession and make the Copts look guilty in the Abu Fana attack.

“Police arrested them for reasons of ‘security concerns’ in spite of no evidence,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts of Great Britain. “They are comforting Islamists by scapegoating Christians.”

The two men worked as building contractors on the walls of Abu Fana monastery in Upper Egypt when nearly 60 armed Muslim residents attacked it in May 2008. The attack left one Muslim dead and four Christians injured, and two of three monks briefly kidnapped were tortured.

Five days after the attacks, security forces arrested the Fawzy Abdo brothers, charging them with murder. In November they were sent to El Wadi El Gadid Detention Camp near the Egypt-Sudan border and tortured as authorities tried to extract a false confession of murder, their lawyer said.

Minya Gov. Ahmed Dia el-Din claimed the Muslim murdered at Abu Fana was killed by one of the brothers from 80 meters away. But the Coptic brothers’ lawyer, Zachary Kamal, told Compass that an autopsy showed a bullet fired from a short distance.

The two men have faced extreme conditions in prison such as solitary confinement and broken teeth from beatings, and they have not been allowed to see their families, who are undergoing extreme hardship. Refaat Fawzy Abdo has six children and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo has seven; both Christians are the breadwinners of their households.

Reconciliation Instead of Justice?

Reconciliation meetings with area Muslims continue with the participation of Coptic businessmen, the diocese of Mallawi, a member of Parliament and attorney Kamal, all under the auspices of the police.

Such meetings are somewhat customary in Egypt, in which different parties come together to settle legal matters out of court. They carry a social purpose of restoring faith and communal harmony in the face of sectarian tensions.

Kamal said he was not opposed to a reconciliation meeting instead of normal judicial channels, but that terms of the discussion were unacceptable. Authorities want the brothers to admit to the murder of the Muslim and the Copts to pay compensation to the victim’s family.

“They want the Copts to accept guilt, but that means they will carry the blood of the victim the rest of their lives,” Kamal said.

Other Copts worry that the meetings are a substitute for administrative justice, and that police are using the brothers as a bargaining tool to force Abu Fana’s monks to drop charges against local Muslims and call off the investigation of the attack.

“The brothers are still held because they are being used as a negotiation chip,” said Samia Sidhom, English editor of Egyptian Christian weekly Watani. “The reconciliation efforts are to make the monks change their testimony. If they do that, the brothers will be released.”

Sidhom said that Coptic church leaders entered into negotiations with local Muslims and politicians and gave up their legal rights because obtaining justice in the Islamist-tilted Egyptian legal system is very difficult.

“Typically a Copt or their buildings are attacked, and the only way for the police to avoid punishing the culprits is through these reconciliation meetings, where the Copts give up any legal rights they have,” Sidhom said.

State officials, however, said the Copts are superimposing religious persecution claims onto a simple argument over property. The Minya governor said the attacks were not religious but were provoked by a long-standing land dispute between the monks and local Bedouins.

Whether the monastery attack started as a land dispute or not, the findings of secular rights groups revealed that in the course of the violence, attackers tied two of the kidnapped monks to a palm tree, whipped and beat them, and forced them to spit on a cross and give the confession of Islam, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Motives for the May 2008 attacks against the monastery, located 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Cairo, are still unknown. Coptic advocacy groups claim the attacks were motivated by growing hostility against Egypt’s Christian community.

Report from Compass Direct News


On same day, Mennonite denomination receives legal recognition; pastors wary.

LOS ANGELES, November 20 (Compass Direct News) – At a chapel on the remaining patch of Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi that the Vietnamese government had yet to confiscate, at 10 p.m. on Saturday night (Nov. 15) an official came to summon the priests to an “urgent meeting.” According to Vietcatholic.net website and other church sources, it proved to be a ruse to draw them away from the property while government-inspired gangs attacked St. Gerardo Chapel.

As the gangs ravaged the chapel, Father Joseph Dinh told Independent Catholic News, some people at the church began ringing the church bells to signal for help while others sent urgent e-mail and text messages asking Catholics to defend it.

Hundreds of police with stun guns tried to keep the arriving faithful from entering the chapel to stop the destruction. The hundreds of Catholics who arrived eventually overwhelmed officers, going past police to scare off the attackers. Witnesses reportedly said that government, police and security officials had stood by doing nothing to protect the chapel.

They also said that fleeing gang members shouted obscenities threatening to kill the priests and the faithful, as well as the archbishop.

“It is significant that the government attack against the monastery came on the eve of the celebration of the Feast of Vietnamese Martyrs,” a local priest told Vietcatholic.net. “This attack reminds people that since the outset, the seed of faith in Vietnam’s soil was mixed with the abundant blood of Catholic martyrs from all walks of life – from courageous missionaries to local clergy and the Christian faithful.”

The priest concluded by decrying the deterioration of conditions for Vietnamese Catholics.

A government spokesman later denied that the Vietnamese forces or authorities were involved in the attack.

As the government had achieved its objective of taking over the contested land, the well-coordinated attack came as a surprise to many. In September, Vietnam had resorted to force to answer months of growing but peaceful prayer vigils over long-confiscated Catholic properties in Hanoi, reneging on a promise to negotiate a settlement. Unilaterally, the government quickly turned the papal nunciature and the rest of the Thai Ha Redemptorist property into public parks.

The solidarity demonstrated by Catholics throughout the country appeared to have alarmed authorities. They reverted to classic attacks of disinformation and slander against Catholic leaders, and even after they had halted the prayer vigils, taken the contested land and allowed previous gangs to ransack the Redemptorist chapel, authorities demanded the removal of the archbishop of Hanoi, Ngo Quang Kiet, whom they accused of inciting riots against the state.

A Protestant pastor in Hanoi said the government’s recent conflict with Catholics has had a ripple affect on other churches and religions.

“Though it is the Catholics who are being most lambasted in the state media, Protestants are also maligned along with Catholics by government propaganda,” he said. “Secondly, all religious leaders are again subject to closer surveillance.”


Mennonite Church Recognized

Ironically, only a few hours earlier on the same day the chapel was attacked, the Vietnam Mennonite Church was allowed to hold its organizing general assembly in Ho Chi Minh City, becoming the fifth smaller church body to receive full legal recognition in 2008.

While registration can mark an improvement in the way the government treats a church, it is not to be confused with full religious freedom, church leaders said, as it is sometimes used as a means of control. The dubious benefits of registration have led many Protestant groups to simply quit seeking it.

Other Protestant groups to receive legal recognition in 2008 were the Grace Baptist Church, the Vietnam Presbyterian Church, the Vietnam Baptist Church, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. This brought the total number of fully recognized Protestant denominations to eight. Two of the eight bodies, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), received legal recognition before the new religion legislation initiated in late 2004.

None of the 24 house church organizations of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF), however, has received even the lower-level “national registration to carry out religious activity.” Only one in seven of its congregations even have permission to operate locally.

Of the total 2,148 VEF congregations, 1,498 have applied for local permission to carry out religious activity, but only 334 have received it. Another house church organization has had 80 congregations apply for local permission to operate and has received only refusals or no answer at all. Other groups report a similar experience.

A hint of the government’s attitude toward registered churches, pastors said, was evident in its official news release on the Vietnam Mennonite Church general assembly. The Vietnam News Agency release of Nov. 15 enjoining the church to “serve both God and the nation” and to “unite with other people in the course of national reconstruction” struck some church leaders as an expectation that their congregations will serve political ends.

Christian leaders detected government fear of churches’ international connections in the official claim that, “For more than three decades, the Vietnam Mennonite Church has operated independently from foreign Mennonite churches.”

As is customary, the ceremony included an address by a representative of the Bureau of Religious Affairs. Nguyen Thanh Xuan said he expects the Mennonite Church “to bring into full play good characteristics of Protestantism, uphold the tradition of charity, and join hands with other religious and non-religious people to build a country of stability and prosperity.”

The heavy-handed treatment of Catholics over the disputed property and the offering of legal registration to more Protestant groups does not present the contrast it may first appear, said one long-time observer.

“Catholics outnumber Protestants about five to one and are a much more formidable and unified organization than Vietnam’s fractured Protestants,” he said. “Alarmed at the largest countrywide Catholic solidarity ever demonstrated, nonplussed security authorities ordered a classic, harsh crackdown and incited ‘punishment’ disguised as citizens’ outrage.”

Protestants, he said, are less numerous, more divided and rarely capable of joint action, so they do not pose a serious threat.

“For example, the oft-repeated requests and ultimatums by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) on their 265 confiscated properties are simply ignored,” he said. “And don’t forget that the majority of Protestants are ethnic minorities in remote areas who remain closely watched by the government.”  

Report from Compass Direct News