Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground

Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.

“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.

Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.

“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”

Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.

Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.

Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.

Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.

“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.

Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.

“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”


Hindu Nation

Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.

If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.

On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.

The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.

“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”

Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.

The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.

“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”

Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.

Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.

The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.

More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.  

Report from Compass Direct News

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

Indonesian Church Reports Defiant Mayor to National Police

Bogor official defies Supreme Court, revokes building permit; Christians kept from worship site.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, April 1 (CDN) — A month that saw the Bogor city mayor defying a Supreme Court decision granting a building permit for a church in Bogor, West Java culminated in police turning away those seeking to worship – and church leaders today filing a police complaint on the mayor with National Police.

Bogor Mayor Diani Budiarto issued a decree revoking the building permit for the Christian Church of Indonesia (GKI) in Yasmin Park on March 11, citing unrest among local Muslims and charging the church with having lied about obtaining area residents’ approval when the permit was originally processed. Bogor city officials have also decided to try purchasing the land where the church meets.

Church leaders and rights groups scoffed at the city’s claims and its attempt to remove the church from the area after years of protests from Islamic groups. At a press conference last month, Bona Sigalingging, spokesperson for the GKI Yasmin church, read a statement in which the church and 12 interfaith and rights organizations rejected the mayor’s decree.

“The mayor of Bogor has publically lied and twisted the facts, which are both crimes and public moral failures,” Sigalingging said.

When GKI Yasmin representatives checked the city’s claims of a document with false signatures of area residents approving the church, they found such a document had never been submitted; it did not appear in the application file.

“The entire building permit file had been submitted in 2005, and there have never been any additions,” Sigalingging said, adding that the mayor was rash in issuing the baseless decree. “The reasons [for revoking the church permit] are clearly contrived and unfactual.”

He said the decree not only contravened the 1945 Constitution but was also a violation of law.

“The mayoral decree was [directly] opposed to the court decision that the building permit was legal and binding,” he said. “We also request that the mayor rescind Mayoral Decree No. 645.45-137/2011 regarding the revocation of the GKI Yasmin building permit and recognize the court decision that the building permit is legal and binding.”

Supporting the GKI Yasmin church were 12 interfaith organizations: The Wahid Institute, the Human Right Working Group (HRWG), the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, the Legal Aid Institute (LBH) Jakarta, the Commission on the Lost and Victims of Oppression, the Fellowship of Indonesian Churches, Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace, the Sinode of the Christian Church of West Java, the Indonesia Legal Research Center, the National Diversity Alliance, the Legal Aid Foundation of Indonesia and the Gusdurian Forum.

Church lawyers today filed a complaint on the Bogor mayor with the National Police detective unit in response to a statement Budiarto made yesterday (March 31) to newspaper Radar Bogor that attorney Jayadi Damanik described as a threat, The Jakarta Post reported.

Citing a report from, the Post quoted Damanik as saying, “We believe Diani Budiarto has committed unpleasant conduct, issuing threats of violence. We think the police need to deal with this.”

The mayor had called for action against the church if it insisted on standing by the Supreme Court ruling granting its building permit, according to the Post. It also reported that Damanik said the church had sent a legal representative to the Home Ministry to report the Bogor mayor for overstepping his duties.

Budiarto was not immediately available for comment.


Blockaded Church

On March 13, some 200 police officers blockaded the church, lining each side of KH Abdullah Bin Nuh Street in Bogor under the pretext that they were preventing clashes with about 20 Muslim protestors, church leaders said.

Authorities set up barricades and questioned every person who wished to go to the church location. Compass observed them turning away several GKI members carrying Bibles and heading toward the worship venue. Police parked nine cars and trucks along the fence in front of worship site – the congregation has been worshipping on a strip of land between the road and a fence – in order to keep the congregation out. A vehicle with a water cannon was parked about 500 meters from the site.

Eventually the congregation realized that they could not worship there and left.

The previous Sunday, March 6, the congregation had been able to open the lock that the city had placed on its church building on April 10, 2010. After pushing and shoving between police and church members, the congregation was able to enter and hold a one-hour service led by GKI Yasmin Pastor Ujang Tanusuputra.

As the service was taking place, Bogor Police Chief Nugroho Slamet Wibowo ordered GKI Yasmin church lawyer Damanik and the congregation to stop the service. Wibowo suggested they shift to the Harmony Building, some 500 meters away, in order to avoid clashes with 2,000 Muslim demonstrators outside the mayor’s office whom Wibowo said would be arriving.

Citing the court ruling that declared the congregation could worship at the church site, Damanik declined.

The worship service finished peacefully, and the congregation happily departed. The predicted 2,000 Muslim protestors failed to materialize.

The next day, Bogor city officials invited GKI leaders to discuss the conflict, and the church representatives were accompanied by the LBH Jakarta, the HRWG, a representative of the Wahid Institute, the Interfaith Society and others. In the meeting, Bogor officials announced that the city was revoking the building permit and buying the disputed land.

“Upon hearing this, the GKI rejected the sale and reminded the Bogor government to obey the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Fatmawati Hugo, a member of the GKI legal team.

On March 12, GKI representatives met with police at the Giant Shopping Mall in Yasmin Park, where authorities ordered the church not to take unilateral action.

The police also guaranteed that firm action would be taken against anyone who tried to lock the GKI Yasmin site, but, ironically, that night at 11:30, policemen accompanied members of the Public Order Agency as they padlocked the gate to the GKI Yasmin church, Hugo said.

About 20 church members, mostly women, could only look on with sadness, he said.

“It’s odd that the police accompanied those who locked [the gate] rather than obeying the law and stopping the sealing,” Hugo said.

A few minutes later, at 12:05 a.m., police issued an ultimatum: All persons and vehicles were to clear the area in front of the church. A tow truck arrived and approached a member’s car parked in front of the gate.

“The church members chose to stay and sang several Christian songs,” said Hugo.

Police officers advanced and tried to take congregation members by force. The women were prepared to be arrested, but efforts to detain them ended when a GKI lawyer asked for reasons for the arrests and for arrest warrants. Church members stayed and unrolled mats so that they could hold a part of the roadside strip for the 8 a.m. worship service. About 15 prayed and sang songs through the night.

Around 4:30 a.m., more police arrived. A mobile brigade commanded by West Bogor Police Chief Hida mobilized to force out those on the side of the road; the crowd dispersed in the face of fully armed police.

“Because they were terrorized, they abandoned the roadside strip,” Hugo said.

After clearing the area, police blockaded 500 meters of KH Abdullah Bin Nuh Street at about 7 a.m., using six truckloads of mobile police and an armored car. They had used the same tactic on Dec. 26, 2010, to prevent the congregation from a Christmas service.

At 7:30 a.m., about 20 Muslims unrolled banners at a corner near the Giant Shopping Mall charging the GKI Yasmin church with deception. “Hard-heads, want to build an illegal church here? Step over our dead bodies first,” read one banner.

The congregation held a short worship service at 8:30 a.m. in the home of a nearby member.

Report from Compass Direct News

Blast Kills 21 outside Church in Alexandria, Egypt

Bomb explodes as Christians leave New Year’s Eve Mass.

LOS ANGELES, January 3 (CDN) — At least 21 people were killed and scores were wounded on Saturday (Jan. 1) when a bomb outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt exploded as congregants were leaving a New Year’s Eve Mass celebration.

The explosion ripped through the crowd shortly after midnight, killing instantly most of those who died, and leaving the entrance-way to the Church of the Two Saints, a Coptic Orthodox congregation, covered with blood and severed body parts.

The blast overturned at least one car, set several others on fire and shattered windows throughout the block on which the church is located.

Egyptian authorities reportedly said 20 of the victims have been identified. At least 90 other people were injured in the blast, 10 seriously. Among the injured were eight Muslims. Many of the injured received treatment at St. Mark’s Hospital.

Burial services for some of the victims started Sunday (Jan. 2) in Alexandria, located in northern Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea.

Witnesses reportedly said a driver parked a car at the entrance of the church and then ran away seconds before it exploded. Government officials have claimed they found remnants of the bomb, filled with nails and other make-shift shrapnel, at the site; they suspect an unidentified suicide bomber, rather than a car bombing.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the attack comes two months after an Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) issued a threat stating that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.”

Claiming they would open “rivers of blood” upon Christians, the group specifically threatened Egyptian Christians based an unsubstantiated rumor that two Coptic women, both wives of Orthodox clergy, were being held against their will after converting to Islam. The statement came after ISI claimed responsibility for an attack on a Baghdad church during mass in which 58 people were killed.

The Egyptian government continues to suspect foreign elements mounted the Alexandria attack, but an unconfirmed report by The Associated Press, citing anonymous government sources, said an Egyptian Islamic group is being investigated.

Bishop Mouneer Anis, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt, said in a written statement that he thinks the attack was linked to the Iraqi threats. He added that his church has taken greater security measures at its downtown Cairo location.

“We pray with all the people of Egypt, Christians and Muslims, [that they] would unite against this new wave of religious fanaticism and terrorism,” he said.

For weeks before the ISI issued its threat, Alexandria was the site of massive protests against the Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III. Immediately after Friday prayers, Muslims would stream out into the streets surrounding mosques, chant slogans against the church and demand the “return” of the two women. Before that, as early as June, clerics from at least one central Alexandria mosque could be heard broadcasting anti-Christian vitriol from minaret loudspeakers during prayers, instructing Muslims to separate themselves entirely from their Christian countrymen.

The Alexandria bombing comes almost a year after a shooting in Nag Hammadi, Egypt left six Christians and one Muslim security guard dead. In the Jan. 6, 2010 attack, a group of men drove by St. John’s Church, 455 kilometers (282 miles) south of Cairo, and sprayed with gunfire a crowd leaving a Coptic Christmas Eve service.

Three men were eventually charged with the shootings, but the case has yet to be resolved.

Egypt wasn’t the only place in the Middle East plagued with anti-Christian violence over the holiday season.

The day before bombers struck the Alexandria church, an elderly Christian couple in Baghdad was killed when terrorists placed a bomb outside of their home, rang the doorbell and walked away, according to media and human rights reports. The bombing happened at the same time other Christian-owned homes and neighborhoods throughout Baghdad were being attacked.

Estimates of the number of people wounded in the attacks in Iraq range from nine to more than 13.

Report from Compass Direct News

Islamists Raid House Churches in West Java

Demonstrators drive out 100 Christians in one service, stop worship in others.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 18 (CDN) — About 200 demonstrators from hard-line Islamic organizations in West Java on Sunday (Dec. 12) disrupted the worship of a church in Rancaekek district, Bandung, driving more than 100 worshippers from the building.

Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement arrived with the Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district and sealed the house, thus leaving other churches that use it without a worship venue. The protestors also disrupted the worship of six other churches meeting in homes the same day.

The demonstrators arrived at 9 a.m., when the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (of HKBP) Bethania church building had begun worship in the building where a pastor and his family live. The protestors urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was a private house rather than registered as a place of worship.

About 10 minutes into the church’s worship, the demonstrators removed by force more than 100 members of the HKBP church on Teratai Street, the pastor said.

“Because they were fearful, children and women were crying when they came out of their place of worship,” the Rev. Badia Hutagalung told Compass by phone.

Hutagalong, 26, lives in the second story of the building. Church officials declined to say who owned the home.

Hutagalung said the congregation resisted the temptation to clash with the Islamic protestors, who were using ambulance sirens to disrupt the service.

The Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district then affixed a document on the front of the building declaring, “This house has been sealed because it has violated Bandung Regency Regulation No. 16, of the year 2009, about building administration.”

HKBP elder Jawadi Hutapea said the document was signed by the head of Rancaekek district, Meman Nurjaman, and the chief of the Civil Service police.

Nurjaman reportedly said use of a private house as a place of worship violated the cited regulation.

“It should be only a place to stay but in fact functioned as a place of worship,” Nurjaman told Tempo News. “Now we’ve sealed the house. From now on, the house may only be used as a house to live in.”

Hutagalung said the church was using the house because it had not been able to obtain permission to establish a church building under conditions imposed by Indonesian law. The Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires places of worship to obtain the approval of at least 60 persons from the local community, mandates there be at least 90 church members, and the church must be approved by the the village head.

“These terms are very difficult for us to fullfil,” Hutagalung told Compass.

The HKBP congregation was established in Rancaekek district in 1999, he added, because of the absence of a church for ethnic Bataknese in the area.

District head Nurjaman reportedly suggested that the church use a room at the College of Public Administration in Jatinangor, Sumedang Regency. Hutagalung said his congregation could do that, but he said not all the churches that use the building could merge together there.

“If we are forced to worship with other churches in the college complex, it is the same as closing the HKBP church in Rancaekek,” Hutagalung said.

He said he had received the suggestion from the district head for the churches to merge worship in the college complex a few weeks ago. Hutagalung said he has sought permission for the churches to worship separately in the college complex, but so far he has not received a response from the college building administrator.

If the HKBP church has not found an alternative venue this Sunday, the congregation plans to worship in front of the house that has been sealed, he said.


Other Churches Targeted

Other churches based in homes in the district met with the same opposition from Islamic protestors.

The Indonesian Evangelical Tabernacle Church (GKII), which began 20 years ago, met at 9:15 a.m. but the Islamic demonstrators appeared and insisted that they disband immediately, said a GKII pastor identified only as the Rev. Margaretha.

She said worship ended within 20 minutes because the protestors broke through an iron fence to force their way in.

“The mob lifted and slammed the fence until it was damaged,” Pastor Margaretha.

About half of the 60-member congregation, which consists mainly of women, was crying, she said. The protestors forced her to sign a letter promising not to use the house as a place of worship.

“They also damaged the door and the Christmas tree,” Pastor Margaretha said. “In the stressful situation, finally I signed the letter.”

Margaretha added that the demonstrators also took four chairs used for worship.

The Pentecostal Tabernacle Church also began its worship on Sunday (Dec. 12) before the Islamist demonstrators interfered.

The Rev. Filemon Sirait told Compass by phone that when the congregations began to worship at 9:30 a.m., the Islamic protestors suddenly massed in front of the house and forced them to stop.

Seeing that the demonstrators were willing to use force, the congregation finished their worship after only 15 minutes, he said.

“We worshiped only in prayer after that time,” Sirait said.

The demonstrators then barged into the house with a document for the pastor and congregation to sign stipulating that they would not use the place for worship, he said.

“Because we were depressed and fearful, finally we signed the letter stating that we agreed not to use the residential house as a place of worship,” Sirait said.

The church was established in Rancaekek district 12 years ago.

The Muslim protestors also disrupted the worship of the Church of Pentecost-Rancaekek, led by the Rev. Bungaran Silitonga. Established 10 years ago, the church has 40 members.

Silitonga told Compass that the Muslim demonstrators stormed into their house at around 2 p.m. and took 37 chairs used for worship activities.

“They took 37 chairs on the order of the district of Rancaekek,” he said.

Silitonga called the head of Rancaekek district to complain about the stolen chairs, and by evening the official had found and returned them, he said.

Islamist protestors reportedly succeeded in sealing five of seven houses used for Christian worship on Sunday. Other churches whose house worship was disrupted were the Indonesian Christian Church, a Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Christian Church.

Report from Compass Direct News

Islamic Groups in Indonesia Demonstrate against Worship in Mall

Permission for church services in shopping center not necessary, rights advocates say.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 2 (CDN) — After closing churches in West Java, South Sulawesi, Sumatra, and other provinces, hard-line Islamic organizations are now attempting to stop Christian worship in or near shopping malls.

Dozens of people from Islamic organizations demonstrated in front of the Gandaria City Mall in south Jakarta on Nov. 19, protesting worship of an unnamed church at the shopping center. After about an hour, mall management in the presence of the sector police chief spoke with demonstrators, who said they opposed the services because there is a Quranic boarding school nearby.

“In front of the mall is a Quranic school that has been there for dozens of years,” said demonstrator Hamdani, according to Poskota newspaper.

The head of the mall, identified only as Ridwan, denied that there was any church or worship service there. He told Poskota that the demonstrators were misinformed and that he had resolved the matter with them.

Jeirry Sumampouw, executive secretary of the diakonia department of the Indonesian Fellowship of Churches, said that no one has the right to forbid worship in a mall. He said a mall is a public space that can be used for any purpose, including worship.

“A mall is multifunctional and can be used in any manner, as long as it is good and doesn’t disturb things,” he said. “The government must be firm with demonstrators who tried to forbid worship services at Gandaria City Mall, because if nothing is done, this can spread to other places.”

The difficulty of getting building permits for churches has caused an increase of worship in malls, Sumampouw said.

“Because of this, many churches are using malls as places of worship,” he said.

He said the state should protect every citizen that worships, especially those in malls or shopping centers.

“Mall managers are often frightened so much that they will forbid worship activities in their malls,” he added.

Citing the Quranic school as a reason to forbid worship at the Gandaria City Mall is without legal basis and highly subjective, Sumampouw said. Raw emotion without consideration of justice motivates those who wish to stop Christian worship, he said, adding that they merely oppose any appearance of Christianity.

“Remember, this is not a country of one religion only,” he said. “These motives are wrong. The reasons to forbid worship are fabricated.”

Sumampouw said opponents’ motives go beyond mere anti-Christian sentiment – there are hoodlums who are intolerant of minority religions, including those who extort money, seize land, and oppose Christians because of personal grievances.

Saor Siagian, coordinator of the Religious Freedom Defense Team, said that Islamic prohibition of worship in malls urgently needed to be addressed.

“If demonstrators are able to prohibit worship activities, it means that they are able to forbid constitutional rights of citizens, because the constitution states that every citizen is free to practice his faith,” he said.

Forcing worship to stop, Siagian said, not only violates the constitution but is also a criminal offense.

“Because of this, the police must act decisively,” he said.

Demonstrators must understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens, he said, because no one has the right to forbid people to practice their faith in Indonesia.

“Because of this, I urge any Christian congregation that is the object of a demonstration to report it to police and lodge a complaint that there is a threat of force,” he said. “It is also fair to see if the demonstrators have a permit or have notified police. There should be no illegal demonstrations.”

Siagian advised all congregations that as citizens they must not give in to vigilantes, including “anyone wearing a robe,” a reference to Muslim extremists from the Islamic Defenders Front and other hard-line groups that wear long white robes.

There is no need to obtain a permit to worship in a mall under Indonesian law, he said. If a worship service took place at Gandaria City Mall, Saor said, the congregation could continue to meet there.

“If a congregation bows to the wishes of a mob, then it is the same as vigilante rule, which violates the constitution,” he said.

Mall managers are not obliged to reject Christian worship, he said, because Article 28 of the 1945 Constitution states that every citizen is free to worship. Siagian added that if Christians were forbidden to worship once a week in a mall, then demonstrators need to be consistent and press for a ban of all forms of worship at malls, including Islamic prayers said five times a day.

“Those would also need to be forbidden,” he said.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice president of the Setara Institute for Justice and Peace, said he was surprised at opposition to worship at Gandaria City Mall. Malls are public spaces where many different activities may take place, he said.

“Because it’s a public space, there is no relationship between permits and worship,” he said. “It’s different if you want to erect a church [building] on your own property.”

Naipospos said churches are meeting in malls because obtaining permits is so difficult. The government and the Interfaith Harmony Forum should quickly resolve the conflict, he said.

“I fear that this incident will become a model that will be imitated by intolerant gangs in other places,” he said.

The demonstrators’ reasoning that worship cannot be held because of the nearby Quranic school is not rational, Naipospos said. Because a mall is a public place, he said, it is not beholden to any particular community or religion.

If there happened to be a worship service in Gandaria Mall, Bonar would urge them to continue meeting.

“Let’s not bow to any intolerant hoodlums,” he said. “We don’t need to worry.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan

Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims in Bekasi, Indonesia Oppose Another Church Building

Islamists decry ‘center of Christianization’ in West Java, where anti-Christian hostilities fester.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 13 (CDN) — Islamic organizations have mounted a campaign against the planned construction of Mother Teresa Catholic Church in West Java Province, where Christian leaders report 20 other churches have faced Muslim hostility since 2009.  

Muslim leaders said plans for the Mother Teresa church in the Lippo Cikarang property project in the Cikarang area will make it the largest church building in Bekasi City. Adang Permana, general chairman of the Bekasi Islamic Youth Movement, said Bekasi area Muslims oppose the church building because they fear it will become “a center of Christianization,” according to the Islamic website

“This church will become the center of apostasy and clearly disturb the faith of Bekasi citizens, who are mostly Muslims,” Permana said, according to the website. “In addition to rejecting this parish church, we also call for the disbanding of all unauthorized churches in Bekasi Regency [City],” he stated. A church leader, however, said area residents had approved the presence of the church.

Adang said opposition to the church was based in the Islamic roots of the city.

“Historically, sociologically, and demographically, Bekasi cannot be separated from Islam, with the cleric K.H. Noer Ali as one of the founders and developers of the city,” Adang told “Because of this, we reject the church.”

H.M. Dahlan, coordinator of United Muslim Action of Bekasi, also expressed fear that the church would become a center of Christianization in Bekasi.  

“Bekasi Muslims reject the presence of this church,” Dahlan said in a letter that he has circulated among mosques in the Bekasi area. In it he states that plans for the Mother Teresa church would make it the largest church building in southeast Asia. The letter has reportedly generated much unrest among area residents.

At a recent press conference, Dahlan said Unified Muslim Action of Bekasi, along with “all Muslims, mosque congregations, leaders of women’s study groups, Quranic schools, and Islamic education foundations have firmly decided to reject the construction of Mother Teresa Catholic Church in Cikarang and request that the Bekasi Regency cancel all [construction] plans.”

The Islamic groups also called on Bekasi officials to clamp down on “illegal churches” meeting in homes and shops and to block “all forms of Christianization” in the area. Local government officials frequently stall Christian applications for building and worship permits, opening the way for Islamic groups to accuse churches of being “illegal.”

The Mother Teresa church applied for a building permit in 2006, but the Bekasi government has not yet acted on the application, said a clergyman from the church identified only as Pangestu. He added that his church has met all requirements of 2006 Joint Ministerial Decrees No. 8 and No. 9, but the permit has still not been granted. The 2006 decrees require at least 60 non-Christian residents to agree to the construction of a church building, and the congregation must have at least 90 members.

The parish now worships at the Trinity School auditorium.

Pangestu said the church has provided school funds for poor children, free clinics, and food for needy neighbors.  

“There are no problems between the church and the local people,” Pangestu said.

Mother Teresa Catholic Church began worshiping on Jan. 25, 2004.  The church plans to build on an 8,000-square meter lot near Trinity School.

The objections from Islamic groups are the latest evidence of Islamic hostility to churches. Theophilus Bela, president of the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, released a statement this week that 36 churches in Indonesia have been attacked, harassed or otherwise opposed since 2009; 20 of the churches were located in West Java, with six of those in the Bekasi area.

The list is growing, Bela said, and does not yet include recent reports of 10 churches that local authorities were opposing in Mojokerto, East Java Province, and three others that were closed down in Tembilahan, Riau Province.

Still, large-scale attacks on Christians do not happen as they did in the 1990s and before, he said.

“Now the attacks on churches happen only sporadically,” Bela reported. “In 2007 I noted 100 cases of attacks, and in 2008 the figure went down to only 40 cases, and until October 2009 I noted only eight cases of attacks on Christian churches. But with an attack on St. Albert Catholic Church on Dec. 17, 2009, the figure of cases went up again.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslim Extremists Murder Christian Family in Pakistan

Lawyer, wife, five children shot to death after he tried to defend Christian.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, September 30 (CDN) — Islamic extremists killed a Christian lawyer, his wife and their five children in northwestern Pakistan this week for mounting a legal challenge against a Muslim who was charging a Christian exorbitant interest, local sources said.

Police found the bodies of attorney and evangelist Edwin Paul and his family on Tuesday morning (Sept. 28) at their home in Haripur, a small town near Abbotabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (previously known as the North-West Frontier Province, or NWFP), according to Haripur Station House Officer (SHO) Maqbool Khan.

The victim and his wife Ruby Paul, along with their five children ages 6 to 17, had been shot to death.

“On Sept. 28 at around 8 a.m., we received a call from Sher Khan colony that people heard gunshots, and there was a group of people who ran from a house and drove away,” Khan said. “We went and found seven bodies in a house.”

Paul’s Muslim neighbor, Mushtaq Khan, told Compass that the previous day a group of armed men had threatened the lawyer.

“On Monday a group of armed men stopped Paul and took him by the collar and said, ‘Leave the town in 24 hours – we know how to throw out Christians, we will not allow even a single Christian to live here. We will hang them all in the streets, so that no Christian would ever dare to enter the Hazara land.”

The Hazara are settlers from northern Pakistan who are an ethnic mixture of Punjabi Jats and Pashtuns (also called Pathans). Drawing attention for demanding a separate province for themselves when the NWFP became Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Hazara community financially supports area Islamic extremist groups and is known for charging up to 400 percent interest to Christians. Paul had moved with his family to the area in February.

He had taken up the case of Robin Mehboob, a Christian taxi driver in Haripur who had received a loan of 150,000 rupees (US$1,725) from Noor Khan, an influential Muslim whose lending network extends to some parts of Punjab Province, to buy a taxi. Originally Noor Khan agreed that Mehboob would pay back 224,000 rupees (US$2,580) after one year, Mehboob said.

“I gave my property papers as a guarantee,” Mehboob told Compass, “but then the amount of the interest was raised to 500 percent because I am a Christian – he was demanding back 1.12 million rupees [US$12,893]. They have forcefully taken over my property and have confiscated my taxi as well. I am a poor man, the taxi is the only source of income.”

Paul took Mehboob and the documents of the original loan agreement to the Haripur police station, Mehboob said.

“We talked to the SHO, who said, ‘You can file a complaint, but I can assure you that no one will testify against Noor Khan, as he is supported by extremist groups,’” Mehboob said. “We filed the complaint, and one of the police officers informed [Noor] Khan that we went to the police station.”

On their way back from the police station, three cars filled with Noor Khan’s associates stopped near his house, Mehboob said.

“They came out and said, ‘How dare you Christians go to the police, don’t you know we own the law here?’ They assaulted us, beating us with fists and clubs, and warned that if we try to seek any assistance, they will kill us.”

Mehboob left Haripur that night and went to his brother in Sialkot.

Paul wrote to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, Christian organizations and churches for help, explaining how Noor Khan and the extremist groups were driving Christians out of the area by taking over their property or threatening to kill them unless they sold their homes.

The Muslim extremist groups most active in the area are the banned Jamat ul Dawa, the Sunni Tahreek, and some groups linked with the Pakistani Taliban. The extremist groups were making fake documents to occupy properties owned by Christians, and Hazara investors were supporting the campaign, area Christians said.

The Muslim extremists have also threatened many Christians with death if they do not convert, they said.

Pastor Rehmat Naeem of St. Paul Church in Haripur told Compass that he had also received threats.

“Some extremists sent us threats through phone calls and letters, asking us to leave Haripur,” Pastor Naeem said. “Many Christians were forced to sell their property at very low rates and leave the area. Edwin Paul tried to help the Christians – he even talked to the higher authorities, but no one was ready to testify against the extremists.”

Pastor Naeem added that two months ago area extremists kidnapped eight missionaries; six have been released, and the two others are presumed dead.

A First Information Report has been filed in the murder of Paul and his family, and the District Coordination Officer and District Police Officer (DPO) have strongly condemned the crime and instructed the SHO to find those responsible, authorities said.

Chief Secretary of Hazara Division Ali Ahmed has released a statement ordering a police operation “under the Terrorist Act against the extremists and the Hazaras for forcefully driving away the Christians and killing seven innocent people. We will not allow anyone to threaten the religious minorities. It is the duty of the state to protect the life and property of its people. The DPO has been instructed to arrest the culprits in 72 hours and submit a report or he will be suspended.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Iranian State TV reported about the arrest of Christians

In its news night program on Friday 10th September Iranian State television announced that nine people had been arrested on the charge of carrying out evangelism just outside Hamedan. The report was announced by one of the security authorities, reports FCNN.

In this report State television mentioned that two of these people were being supported by organizations that are based outside the country, in particular the United States and Great Britain, but they did not mention the nationalities of these people.

In this report it has been said that: ‘the other seven people who were arrested are Iranian and were cooperating with these Christian-Zionist organizations’. This report labels the arrested people as ‘Christian Zionists’ and ‘evangelicals’ but it did not say anything about their relationship with Israel or Zionists.

In the Iranian government culture ‘Christian-Zionists’ is a title that they use to call Evangelical Christians who are benefiting from having access to a number of networks and TV satellite programs for evangelism.

This State TV report has not been reflected in other media and it is only the Fars news agency, which is connected to the Revolutionary Guard, which has mentioned that people had gathered to thank the security agents of Imam Mahdi and the legal authorities. This news agency has also published the lecture by Chief Justice Hojat Al-Islam BeegLare on this matter.

During the last few months and years there have been several times when Christians in home groups and new converts have been arrested by security agents, but this appears to be the first time in three decades that the State TV has broadcast the news of the arrest of a group of Christians in its program for a particular purpose.

Report from the Christian Telegraph