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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.


Religious ‘Competition’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Attacks on Christians in Karnataka Frequent, Furious

Southern state has become epicenter of religious assaults, Christians say.

NEW DELHI, February 4 (CDN) — Karnataka state recorded the highest number of anti-Christian attacks in India last year, and it is keeping pace this year.

Christians in Karnataka are being attacked “at rapid regularity” and “with near impunity,” and it is “a serious matter of concern for the Christian community,” said Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).

Much of the violence occurs under the vigilante pretext of rounding up Christians supposedly involved in “forcible” or “fraudulent” conversion efforts. On Monday (Feb. 1) in Thagadur village, Kodagu district, Hindu extremists dragged 11 Christians – including four women – from their homes and colluded with police to arrest them on such false charges.

The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that all of the Christians, members of the Beraka Gospel Church in Suntikupa village, were tortured at the Siddapur police station to pressure them to admit to the charges. Most of the jailed Christians are tribal, daily wage laborers who work on coffee plantations.

Police denied torturing the Christians, but like many people in India easily confused by Hindu extremist propaganda, Inspector Ratan Singh of the Siddapur police station seemed to erroneously believe that laws against fraudulent conversion apply to any kind of proclamation of faith.

“According to the complaint we received, the accused were inviting local Hindus for prayer meetings to convert them,” Singh told Compass, as if such activity were illegal in India. “We did not beat them. When they were produced before the judicial magistrate, they said they were not mistreated by the police.”

The GCIC recorded 72 attacks on Christians in Karnataka in 2009. That represents a decline from the 112 attacks the previous year, when three months of anti-Christian violence in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district in 2008 led Hindu extremists in Karnataka to lash out as well, according to Christian leaders.

Justice Michael F. Saldanha, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court and president of the Catholic Association of South Kanara (a district in Karnataka also known as Dakshina Kannada), told Compass that attacks on Christians in the state increased after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began to rule.

In May 2008 the BJP came to power in Karnataka, thus making it the first southern state with a stand-alone BJP government in the history of India. The party’s rule was preceded by a 20-month rule in alliance with a local party, the Janata Dal (Secular).

Although Karnataka has had a dominant presence of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar since 1950, its cadres obtained free rein only after the BJP’s electoral victory, Saldanha explained.

“The real headquarters of the Sangh Parivar is not in Maharashtra [official headquarters of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, in Nagpur), it’s in Karnataka,” said Saldanha, who conducted a private inquiry into a series of attacks that rocked Karnataka in September 2008 following the unprecedented anti-Christian bloodbath in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district.

Between Aug. 17 and Sept. 21, 2008, more than 28 attacks on churches, led mainly by the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, a Sangh Parivar offshoot, were reported from various parts of Karnataka.

Saldanha pointed out that Brahmins, the highest or priestly class in the caste hierarchy in Hinduism, from Udupi district and Mangalore city in neighboring Dakshina Kannada district played a special role in leading the Hindu right-wing movement. The retired judge also accused the BJP government of supporting Sangh Parivar outfits with public money.

“The Karnataka government gives money to right-wing groups for festivals in the name of celebrations, and also through donations to certain temples,” he said.

Agreeing with Saldanha, the CBCI’s Joseph said the violence in Karnataka points to a “decline in civility and collapse of administration.”

“It is indeed sad that Karnataka, which enjoyed communal harmony and social amity for so long, has recently been pushed into the cycle of hate crimes perpetrated by the extreme elements in society that do not believe in mutual tolerance or acceptance,” Joseph said.

Karnataka Gov. H.R. Bhardwaj reportedly said earlier this week that protection of people’s lives and liberties, including the right to propagate their religion, was “the essence of Indian democracy.”

The governor said it was the responsibility of the state government “to see that nobody is allowed to flout the democratic norms and laws of the land,” acknowledging a rise in the incidence of attacks against churches, reported Daijiworld.

His comments came a day after an attack on a glass painting of the Virgin Mary at the entrance arch of the Canara Organisation for Development and Peace building in Nantoor area on Saturday (Jan. 30).

On that day Christians held a silent protest in Mysore, and on Monday (Feb. 1) Christians in Mangalore protested in like fashion against increasing attacks on them.

On Jan. 28, unidentified people burned down a church in Raipura area in Molakalmuru town in Chitradurga district. The Jesus Loves Holy Temple Church turned into ashes, reported GCIC.

Two Catholic churches were attacked in Mysore and Uttara Kannada districts on Jan. 25. Unidentified people reportedly broke a statue of Mary on the compound wall of the Holy Family Church in Hinkal village in the wee hours in Mysore district. In the other incident, glass panes covering the statue of Mary were broken at St. Anthony Church in the Pernamakki area in Uttara Kannada district.

At 2:30 a.m. this morning, unidentified people broke into a Catholic church and vandalized it in the Malavalli area of Mandya district, reported the Karnataka-based GCIC. The cross, statues and musical instruments in the St. Mathias Church were destroyed, it said, adding that the parish priest filed a complaint at the Malavalli police station.

‘Lip Service’

Echoing claims of the Hindu nationalist BJP, Karnataka State Minorities Commission member Anthony Fernandez said he does not believe there is any reason for concern.

“Some elements are simply trying to tarnish the image of the state government,” he said.

Fernandez acknowledged, however, that the Hindu nationalist Sri Ram Sene (Army of God Rama) was involved in some attacks. The Sri Ram Sene is believed to be a splinter group from the Sangh Parivar family of organizations under the RSS.

Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa on Jan. 28 warned those who vandalize religious places, saying he would have their hands “chopped off.”

“I, the chief minister of Karnataka, am saying I will chop off their hands,” Yeddyurappa was quoted as saying by Headlines Today news channel.

The CBCI’s Joseph said “lip service” by the government was “no longer enough.”

“It has to show results on the ground that it means business in tackling the menace of communal elements,” he said. “Unprovoked violence against fellow citizens in the name of religion is pernicious, and it must stop forthwith, or else the impression may gain ground that the administration of the day is colluding with criminal and extreme elements in vitiating the social harmony for short term political gains – something this country can ill afford in the long run.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Belarusian officials continue to persecute Christian church

Belarusian officials continue to harass New Life Full Gospel Church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 4 January the church received a summons from the Minsk City Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Committee, claiming that the church had polluted the ground around its building with oil, causing large amounts of damage.

Church members reject the allegation, Sergei Lukanin noting that "for some reason they only took samples from the road which comes into the car park. Of course they’re going to find traces of oil there."

Belarus also continues to persecute people for the "offence" of unregistered religious activity. Challenged about two heavy fines of a pensioner for this "offence", Lyudmila Paprakova of Grodno Ideology Department told Forum 18 that "we don’t have such persecution here. We’re absolutely democratic." After a woman was fined for allowing her home to be used for unregistered worship, Alla Starikevich of Brest City Ideology Department described the role of officials who started the case as "to maintain mutual relations with religious communities."

Report from the Christian Telegraph