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

Chinese religious freedom activist awarded Nobel Peace Prize

A Chinese human rights dissident and democracy advocate was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, reports Peter J. Smith,

Liu Xiaobo is the architect of a pro-democracy and human rights manifesto called Charter 08, which called for basic freedoms such as freedom of religion, assembly, protection of private property, and the guarantee of rights outlined under the U.N.’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

Authorities arrested Liu two days before the Charter’s December 8, 2008 release and charged him with "inciting the subversion of state power." After declaring him guilty, a Chinese court sentenced Liu on Christmas Day 2009 to 11 years in prison.

The Nobel committee in particular cited Liu’s pacifism in challenging communist China’s human rights abuses and calling for democratic reforms.

Liu was nominated in part by eight U.S. lawmakers who praised his work and suffering for human rights in China.

On behalf of himself and seven other U.S. Congressman, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) recommended that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee recognize not only Liu, but jointly award the prize to two other human rights activists, Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng, who have been persecuted specifically for fighting China’s brutal policy of forced abortion and sterilizations under the “one-child” policy.

Chen is a blind self-taught lawyer, who took the burden upon himself to defend local Chinese peasant women from forced sterilization and their children from forced abortion by local government authorities.

Gao, a Beijing attorney committed to defending human rights in China, was one of Chen’s lawyers. On February 4, 2009, Gao went missing under suspicious circumstances.

Geng He, Gao’s wife, told the Associated Press that she has not spoken to her husband since April and fears for his safety.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has blasted the Nobel committee’s selection of Liu, calling the award a “blasphemy” and Liu a “criminal.”

"The Nobel Peace Prize is meant to award individuals who promote international harmony and friendship, peace and disarmament. Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law,” the ministry said on its website. “Awarding the peace to Liu runs completely counter to the principle of the award and is also a blasphemy to the Peace Prize."

The AP reports that news of Liu’s Nobel award has been blacked out in China. It added that Liu Xia, his wife, is guarded in her Beijing apartment by police, who have forbidden her from meeting with reporters.

Liu’s wife, who is able to communicate by telephone and electronic media, told CNN that she intends to visit him in prison soon to inform him of the prize, and encourage him. She hopes to be able to visit Norway to collect the award on his behalf.

Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient was President Barack Obama, who was nominated shortly after his presidential inauguration. Obama praised Liu for his sacrifice in a statement and called upon Chinese authorities to release him from prison.

“By granting the prize to Mr. Liu, the Nobel Committee has chosen someone who has been an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” said Obama.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

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

Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say

Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

What's My Favorite Summer Memory?

Summer is a great time of the year – I love it. Summer has generally been the best time for getting into the Great Outdoors and exploring Australia. Summer has brought me many great memories – so many that it is hard to place one as being THE favorite summer memory. However, there is one summer memory that means more to me now than a lot of others, for one particular reason. It was in a November (summer in Australia) a few years ago now, that I traveled to Gloucester Tops with Bec and we enjoyed the bush, the river and the waterfalls together. It was a special time. It is even more special to me now because Bec died 2 years ago (June 25) and this is one of the greatest memories I have and times I spent with her. It was a great day I will never forget.

Moroccan Islamists Use Facebook to Target Christians

Local Christians sense authorities, extremists and society in collusion against them.

RABAT, Morocco, June 17 (CDN) — Moroccan Christians say Muslim extremists in the country are aiding and encouraging the government to pursue them by exposing and vilifying them on social networking site Facebook.

Facebook user Gardes Maroc Maroc has posted 32 image collages featuring dozens of Christian converts, calling them “hyena evangelists” or “wolves in lamb’s skins” who are trying to “shake the faith of Muslims.” That terminology on the website, which is in Arabic, matches that of Morocco’s anti-proselytizing law, which outlaws efforts to “shake the faith of Muslims.”

The online images depict Christian converts and their families from across the country and include details about their roles and activities in churches, their personal addresses and anecdotal stories attempting to malign them.

“These are some pics of Moroccan convert hyenas,” reads one image.

Since March, the Moroccan government has expelled more than 100 foreign Christians for alleged “proselytizing.” Authorities failed to give Christians deportation orders or enough time to settle their affairs before they left.

Observers have called this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate Muslim country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.

Amid a national media campaign to vilify Christians in Morocco, more than 7,000 Muslim clerics signed a statement denouncing all Christian activities and calling foreign Christians’ aid work “religious terrorism.”

On the Facebook page, Gardes Maroc Maroc makes a particularly strident call to Moroccan authorities to investigate adoptive parents of children from the village of Ain Leuh, 50 miles south of Fez. The user claims that local Christians under orders of “foreign missionaries” were attempting to adopt the children so missionary efforts would not “go in vain.”

On March 8, the Moroccan government expelled 26 Christian foreign staff members and parents working at Village of Hope in Ain Leuh.

Now efforts against national Christians have gained momentum. One image on the Facebook page challenged the Islamic Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments, saying, “Evangelist hyenas are deriding your Ministry.” The page with the images claimed that Christians had rented out an apartment belonging to that government ministry.

An entire page was dedicated to a well-known Christian TV personality in the Middle East, Rashid Hmami, and his family. The user also inserted pictures of hyenas next to those of Christians, presumably to indicate their danger to the nation.


National Christians Threatened

Moroccan Christians told Compass that authorities had begun harassing them even before the forced deportations of foreigners, and that pressure from officials only intensified in March and April.

Since the deportations started in early March, it seems that authorities, extremists and society as a whole have colluded against them, local Christians said. Dozens of Christians have been called to police stations for interrogation. Many of them have been threatened and verbally abused.

“They mocked our faith,” said one Moroccan Christian who requested anonymity. “They didn’t talk nicely.”  

Authorities interrogated the convert for eight hours and followed him for three weeks in March and April, he said. During interrogation, he added, local police told him they were prepared to throw him in jail and kill him.

Another Moroccan Christian reported that a Muslim had taken him to court because of his Christian activities. Most Moroccan Christians that spoke to Compass said the attitudes of their Muslim relatives had shifted, and many have been kicked out of their homes or chosen to leave “to not create problems” for their families.

Moroccan converts meet in house churches. Some of them have stopped meeting until the pressure subsides.

“The government is testing the reactions,” said Moroccan lawyer Abdel Adghirni of the recent pressure on Christians.

The lawyer, known as one of the strongest defenders of Berber rights in Morocco, said that although the government’s recent reactions seem regressive, they are part of the nation’s societal transformation process.

“The government is trying to dominate,” said Adghirni. “They are defending themselves. They feel the wind of change. All of this is normal for me – like a complex chemistry that activates as different elements come into contact. Things are moving.”


Congressional Hearing

In an effort to alert U.S. Congress to the sudden turn against religious tolerance in Morocco, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission is holding congressional hearings today on the deportations of foreign Christians from the country.

Earlier today, the National Clergy Council held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to congratulate the Moroccan government on religious tolerance. Organizers of the congressional hearings said they view the council’s press conference as an effort to counter the hearings.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, who heads the council, has had numerous exchanges with Moroccan Islamic leaders and in early April met with the Moroccan ambassador to the United States.

“I have enjoyed a close friendship of several years with the ambassador,” Schenck stated on his website.

Organizers of the congressional hearings have said they are baffled that the National Clergy Council, and in particular Schenck, would speak so highly of the Moroccan government at a time when it is in such blatant violation of human rights.

“There’s good and bad in every country, but what Morocco has done on the whole to advance religious liberty in that region of the world is extraordinary,” Schenck said in a media statement yesterday on Christian Newswire. “We hope to present a fair and balanced picture of this unusual country.”

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said that the Moroccan government has deported nearly 50 U.S. citizens.

“In spite of this, the U.S. government has pledged $697.5 million to Morocco over the next five years through the Millennium Challenge Corporation,” he said. Wolf is advocating that the United States withhold the nearly $697.5 million in aid that it has pledged to Morocco.  

“It is inappropriate for American taxpayer money to go to a nation which disregards the rights of American citizens residing in Morocco and forcibly expels Americans without due process of law,” he said.

Among those appearing at the hearing today is Dutch citizen Herman Boonstra, leader of Village of Hope, who was expelled in March. Boonstra and his wife were forced to leave eight adopted children in Morocco. Moroccan authorities have refused re-entry for the couple, as they have for all deported Christian foreigners.

Lawyer Adghirni said he believes Morocco cannot survive and develop economically – and democratically – without national diversity.

“We can’t be free without Christians,” Adghirni said. “The existence of Christians among us is the proof of liberty.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Churches Forced to Close in Indonesia

Islamists pressure officials to stop Baptist services; Batak worshippers also told to cease.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, February 4 (CDN) — Local governments have ordered the closure of two churches on Indonesia’s Java island.

Under pressure from Islamist groups, authorities ordered Christian Baptist Church in Sepatan, Tangerang district, Banten Province to cease services. In Pondok Timur, near Bekasi in West Java, officials abruptly closed the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church (HKBP) after delaying a building permit for four years.

Tangerang district authorities issued a decree on Jan. 21 ordering all worship activities to cease at the Baptist church. At a meeting in the district offices, officials pressured church officials to sign a statement that they would stop all worship activities, but they refused.

The Rev. Bedali Hulu said that he received the government order on Jan. 26. In addition, a sign was placed on his church’s worship building saying, “Stop! This building violates government decree number 10 of 2006.”

Hulu told Compass that on Dec. 7 a banner was placed on the street leading to the housing area that said, “We Reject the Presence of Uncontrolled Churches in our Area,” and “We Reject Uncontrolled Churches in Sepatan District.” On Dec. 12, citizens presented a letter rejecting the presence of the congregation to church leaders.

The church has permission to worship from both local citizens and the Christians in accordance with a Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006, Hulu said.

“However, the pressure from Islamic groups is so strong, it’s as if the local government can do nothing,” he said.

Islamic groups stirred up demonstrations against the church on Dec. 19, when 30 people demonstrated during a Christmas celebration for children, and another demonstration followed the next day. On Dec. 27, a large crowd from the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) arrived and demanded that worship cease.

Police on Dec. 29 issued a letter ordering that services stop because they violated local government regulations. The next day church leaders met with local officials but did not reach an agreement.

The church of 130 people has been facing such obstacles since 2006. It began in 2005 after reporting to local authorities and receiving permission.

Opposition from the FPI began the next year, and the church was forced to move services from house to house. On Nov. 4, 2007, as children attended Sunday school, around 10 FPI members arrived and broke up the meeting. On Nov. 19 of that year, several FPI members sent a letter to Hulu warning him and his family to leave the village within six days or the extremists would chase them out.

Hulu left temporarily on the advice of police, but his wife and mother-in-law were allowed to remain.

Last year, unidentified people burned the church building on Sept. 20; police have done nothing, he said.

Closure Order

Near the city of Bekasi, West Java, the government has given a deadline for the cessation of services to the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church in Pondok Timur. The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak said that services were ordered to cease after last Sunday (Jan. 31).

The government requested that church officials sign a letter agreeing to this order, but they refused, Simanjuntak said.

The pastor said a local official told them that the order was based on a meeting between the local government and nearby residents who objected to worship services. Simanjuntak told Compass that they were invited to a meeting with the residents who objected, the village officials and the head of the Interfaith Harmony Forum for Bekasi City, Haji Hasnul Chloid Pasaribu. Instead of discussing the situation, however, officials immediately gave the church a letter stating that permission for services extended only to Jan. 31.

“The letter was composed after consulting only one side,” said Simanjuntak. “The church aspirations were never heard.”

The church had been worshipping at that location since 2006.

“From the beginning we worked on the permission, starting at the block level and village level,” he said. “At that time we received permission to worship at my home. We never had problems in our relations with the local citizens.”

The church applied for a worship building permit in 2006, but local officials have yet to act on it, he said.

“Are we not allowed to worship while awaiting the building permit?” Simanjuntak said.

Rev. Gomar Gultom, general secretary of the Indonesian Fellowship of Churches, said that the organization will formulate a request to the Indonesian Senate to provide solutions for the two churches.

“In the near future, we will meet senators from the law and religion committees to discuss this matter,” Gomar said.

Johnny Simanjuntak of the Indonesian National Human Rights Committee told Compass that the government has failed to carry out its constitutional duty to protect freedom of worship for all citizens.

“Clearly the stoppage of any particular religious activity by the government is proof that the government is neglecting the human rights of its citizens,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground

Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.


Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

New threat develops after UN vote on religious defamation

The U.N. General Assembly has passed the non-binding Defamation of Religion Resolution for the fifth year in a row, reports MNN.

However, support is eroding, says Open Doors Advocacy Director Lindsay Vessey. The Islamic-sponsored non-binding resolution passed with 80 votes in favor, 61 against and 42 abstentions. That compared with 86 votes to 53, with 42 abstentions for a similar text last year, and figures of 108-51-25 in 2007, the last time the measure commanded an absolute majority of U.N. members.

Open Doors USA helped to lead the advocacy effort at the United Nations to prevent this resolution from passing. Open Doors lobbied key voting countries, organized a petition drive for Open Doors USA supporters to campaign against the resolution and spoke on this issue to the media. The Open Doors advocacy campaign is called "Free to Believe."

Oppenents say it threatens freedom of speech, especially for minority Christians in Muslim-dominated nations. "Essentially the resolution tried to criminalize words or actions that are deemed to be against a particular religion, namely, Islam."

Vessey warns that the Organization of Islamic Conference is organizing a sneak attack in March. "Instead of being a non-binding resolution, they’re actually trying to pass it through a separate committee that would make it more of a binding resolution–it would make it an optional protocol."

The UN Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards is expected to meet again in the spring to discuss adding the resolution to the International Covenant on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.

Open Doors is readying an advocacy response to the threat. It’s one short step, but Vessey says under it, "People aren‘t free to preach the Gospel–people aren’t free to say what they believe even if they’re not trying to evangelize. But it’s also going to impact missionaries and foreign workers who go into these countries to evangelize."

Report from the Christian Telegraph