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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 http://www.compassdirect.org, “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
Christian leaders assert decision breaches religious law.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 5 (Compass Direct News) – Church members in Depok city, West Java, are unable to use their church building after the mayor, citing protests from area Muslims, revoked a permit issued in 1998.
Under a Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) issued in 1969 and revised in 2006, all religious groups in Indonesia must apply for permits to establish and operate places of worship.
The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Cinere village, Limo sub-district, in 1997 applied for permission to construct a church building and auditorium on 5,000 square meters of land, said Betty Sitompul, manager of the building project. Permission was granted in June 1998, and construction began but soon stopped due to a lack of funding.
After construction began again in 2007, members of a Muslim group from Cinere and neighboring villages damaged the boundary hedge and posted banners on the walls of the building protesting its existence. Most of the protestors were not local residents, according to Sitompul.
By then, the church building was almost completed and church members were using it for worship services.
Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail asked church leaders to cease construction temporarily to appease the protestors. Six months later, in January 2008, the church building committee wrote to the mayor’s office asking for permission to resume work on the project.
“We waited another six months, but had no response,” Sitompul said. “So we wrote again in June 2008 but again heard nothing.”
The building committee wrote again in February, asking for dialogue with the protestors, but members of the Muslim group also wrote to the mayor on Feb. 19, asking him to cancel the church permit.
On March 27 the mayor responded with an official letter revoking the church permit on the grounds of preserving “interfaith harmony.” When challenged, he claimed that city officials had the right to revoke prior decisions, including building permits, at any time.
The Rev. Simon Todingallo, head of the Christian Synod in Depok, said the decision breached SKB regulations and was the result of pressure from a small minority who did not want a church operating in the area. Rev. Todingallo added that the ruling is illegal since the mayor has no right to decide alone, but must also involve Religious Affairs and Internal Affairs ministries.
Saddled with an expensive building complex that was effectively useless, church officials said they would attempt to negotiate with the mayor’s office for the return of the permit and seek legal counsel if negotiations failed.
Report from Compass Direct News
Kingdom silences convert, prohibits him from leaving country.
LOS ANGELES, April 16 (Compass Direct News) – In a surprise move, a Saudi Christian arrested in January for describing his conversion from Islam and criticizing the kingdom’s judiciary on his blog site was released on March 28 with the stipulation that he not travel outside of Saudi Arabia or appear on media.
Hamoud Saleh Al-Amri (previously reported as Hamoud Bin Saleh), 28, reportedly attributed his release to advocacy efforts by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). The Cairo-based organization had campaigned for his release along with other rights groups, reported Christian advocacy organization Middle East Concern (MEC).
Gamal Eid, director of ANHRI, told Compass by telephone that he believed his organization had nothing to do with Al-Amri’s release. Rather, he said he believed officials were loath to keep a person of questionable mental stability in prison.
“He is mentally not stable, because he had the courage to say in his blog that he is a Christian,” Eid said. “Anyone in his right mind in Saudi Arabia wouldn’t do that.”
The country’s penalty for “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, is death, although in recent years there have been no known cases of kingdom citizens formally convicted and sentenced with capital punishment for the offense.
This was not the first imprisonment for Al-Amri. He was detained in 2004 for nine months and in 2008 for one month before he was re-arrested on Jan. 13 of this year, and Eid said the young blogger was tortured during the first two incarcerations.
Al-Amri’s treatment during this latest imprisonment is unknown. After his previous releases he had contacted Eid’s office, but the ANHRI director said he has not done so since being released from Riyadh’s Eleisha prison, known for its human rights abuses.
“He was mistreated the first two times he was imprisoned, but this time I don’t know, because he hasn’t contacted me,” said Eid. “In the past he was mistreated with sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement and a continuous barrage of physical torture and insults.”
The advocate added that it is likely Al-Amri was mistreated during his recent imprisonment.
“I consider anyone who declares his religion to be anything than Islam to be extremely brave and courageous, but this extreme courage bordering on carelessness is madness, because he knows what could happen in Saudi,” Eid said. “I’m not a doctor, but I find this extreme.”
Al-Amri has become isolated from his family and lives alone, Eid said, but he said he was unable to comment on the convert’s current situation.
Following Al-Amri’s latest arrest, MEC reported, Saudi authorities blocked access to his blog inside Saudi Arabia. Google then locked it, claiming there was a technical violation of terms of service. On Feb. 5 it was reportedly restored due to public pressure – after his March 28 release, Al-Amri had credited his release to ANHRI’s efforts on his blog, www.christforsaudi.blogspot.com – but yesterday Compass found the site did not work.
Eid said he was not surprised the blog was blocked.
“That’s what I expected,” he said. “But he will probably start another blog – it’s not difficult.”
Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though authorities have shown some tolerance for criticism and debate since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud officially ascended to the throne in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of State.
“Arabic countries are the worst on the list of censoring the Internet and are at the top of the list of antagonizing the freedom of the Internet,” said Eid. “But the Internet is still a good venue, because people are still able to express their views despite the government’s effort to curtail their efforts.”
In his blog prior to his arrest, Al-Amri had criticized the government for quashing individual rights.
“A nation which lives in this system cannot guarantee the safety of its individuals,” he wrote. “Preserving their rights from violation will always be a matter of concern, as the rights of a citizen, his dignity and humanity will always be subject to abuse and violation by those few who have absolute immunity provided to them by the regime.”
Eid of ANHRI described lack of civil law in Saudi Arabia as “extreme.” Citizens can be tortured endlessly, he said, adding that Saudis who openly state Christian faith face severe danger.
Although there have been recent moves towards reform, Saudi Arabia restricts political expression and allows only a strict version of Sunni Islam to be publicly practiced, according to MEC.
Political critic Fouad Ahmad al-Farhan became the first Saudi to be arrested for Web site postings on Dec. 10, 2007; he was released in April 2008.
Eid said he believes the lenient action of the Saudi authorities is a welcome move in a country where “there is no such thing as religious freedom.” In fact the move could encourage people of other faiths to speak up.
“This will open the door to whoever wants to express his belief, whether Christian, Hindu or other,” he said.
Saudis who choose a faith other than Islam and express it may face extra-judicial killings. In August 2008, a 26-year-old woman was killed for disclosing her faith on a Web site. Fatima Al-Mutairi reportedly had revealed on Web postings that she had left Islam to become a Christian.
Gulfnews.com reported on Aug. 12, 2008 that her father, a member of the religious police or Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, cut out her tongue and burned her to death “following a heated debate on religion.” Al-Mutairi had written about hostilities from family members after they discovered she was a Christian, including insults from her brother after he saw her Web postings about her faith. Some reports indicated that her brother was the one who killed her.
She had reportedly written an article about her faith on a blog of which she was a member under the nickname “Rania” a few days before her murder.
Report from Compass News Direct
In 1986, two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, found something beyond all expectations, reports Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service.
According to Pastor Skip Heitzig, who has recently finished filming a documentary on the find, the brothers felt that they would discover something wonderful on that day.
And wonderful it was.
Tucked away in the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the brothers unearthed a 1st century boat, now named the “Jesus Boat.”
Heitzig explained to me in a recent interview that in 1986 there was a tremendous drought in Israel. This allowed the brothers access to deeper regions of the lake.
One of the brothers stumbled upon some wood, and after a little digging, determined that the wood was actually a boat. According to the brothers, a double rainbow revealed itself in the sky after the find.
The brothers retreated to the Kibbutz Ginasar to get help. The Antiquity Authorities were brought in. After a long, 12-day archeological excavation (the boat was kept in a preserving environment and sailed across the Galilee river), the “Jesus Boat” was put in a 7-year chemical bath (a wax paraffin, Heitzig explained) before it could be displayed in the open air.
Since the time of its unearthing, the boat has been officially dated to the 1st century. Almost 27 feet long, and over 7 feet wide, the boat was dated based upon the nails used and the construction of the hull.
Most scholars agree that the era during which the boat was built falls somewhere between 100 B.C and 100 A.D.
Archeologists state that the “Jesus Boat” is the first near-complete boat ever to be found in the Sea of Galilee, and is therefore a considerable discovery.
Though some have attempted to draw conclusions that Jesus (or His disciples) may have used the boat, the reality is that know one knows. Chances are the boat served its purpose for fishing and trade, and then when it got old; it was allowed to submerge in the lake.
Though scientists can’t determine if this exact boat was one Jesus would have sailed on, it can be said that it is representative of the boats the people of His day would have used.
Since the boat’s discovery, the Pope came to view the vessel- hoping it needed a home in the Vatican. The President came to see it, as did many other men of science and politics. For the past few years, the “Jesus Boat” has generated great interest across the world.
In as much as Heitzig finds the boat a fascinating and important archeological discovery, he also sees the boat as a picture of more than an ancient sailing craft. In the boat, Heitzig finds a parallel to the nation the boat was discovered in.
For Heitzig, the boat is a picture of Israel: a nation that was considered dead and submerged. But through His wonderful providence, God brought Israel forth in 1948. He reemerged it as a bud for a new generation, and established Israel as a nation.
In the soon to be released documentary, The Jesus Boat, Heitzig, as host, takes viewers on a journey through the discovery, preservation, and display of the boat (the boat can be seen in the Yigal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginasar), though Heitzig makes it a point to draw a strong parallel to the rebirth of the Nation of Israel.
According to Heitzig, “The Jesus Boat was way more than a documentary about an ancient boat. It’s really a testimony to the faithfulness of God. Through the film, we paralleled the story of a lost boat and a lost nation- Israel- both of which were “resurrected” after 2,000 years. It tells of a boat that wouldn’t stay buried in a land that couldn’t stay buried!”
“Just like the boat was buried under the shores for 2,000 years, the land of Israel was submerged – virtually not a nation – a dispersed people group. Yet against all odds, Israel re-emerged in 1948. As the prophet Ezekiel predicted, there was a re-gathering of Jews from the four corners of the world into that ancient piece of real estate. It would seem as impossible as dried bones, bleached and parched under the Middle Eastern sun, coming to life again.” (See Ezekiel 36-37).
“And yet it happened – 1948, the re-establishment of the nation. And why? Because God made promises to Abraham: ‘I’ll bless you, I’ll make you a great nation, your name will be great, I’ll bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.’”(See Genesis 12:1-3).
Report from the Christian Telegraph