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

Orissa, India Christians Still Face Boycott, Forced Conversion

Hindu nationalists continue to oppress Christians in Kandhamal district, report says.

NEW DELHI, November 11 (CDN) — More than two years after losing relatives and property in anti-Christian violence, there is no sense of relief among survivors in India’s Orissa state, as many are still ostracized and pressured to “return” to Hinduism, according to a private investigation.

“Despite the state administration’s claim of normalcy,” the preliminary report of a fact-finding team states, “a state of lawlessness and utter fear and sense of insecurity” prevails among Christians of Kandhamal district, which saw a major anti-Christian bloodbath in 2008.

The team, consisting of local attorney Nicholas Barla and another identified only as Brother Marcus, along with rights activists Jugal Kishore Ranjit and Ajay Kumar Singh, visited four villages in three blocks of Kandhamal on Nov. 5.

In Bodimunda village in Tikabali, the team met a pastor who said he has been closely watched since Hindu extremists forced him to become a Hindu. The pastor, whose name the report withheld for security reasons, said he had to convert to Hinduism in 2008 “to save his old mother, who could not have escaped the violence as she was not in a position to walk.”

He is still closely watched in an effort to prevent him from returning to Christianity. While the attorneys and activists were still at the pastor’s house, a man who identified himself as from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate) came to inquire about his visitors. The pastor felt compelled to tell them that they were “bank officials.”

In the same village, Hindu nationalists have also imposed a de facto ban on any private or public vehicle to ferry Christians or their belongings, said the report.

The team met the family of a paralyzed Christian, Bamadev Pradhan, whom auto-rickshaw drivers refused to take to a hospital when he recently ran a high fever. Eventually a Christian driver took him to the only hospital in Tikabali, around eight kilometers (nearly five miles) from his village of Bodimunda, but as the Christian was driving back, some local men confiscated his vehicle.

With the help of the auto-rickshaw union, the driver (unnamed in the report) got the vehicle released after paying a fine of 1,051 (US$24) rupees and promising that he would not transport any Christians in the future.

Another Christian said area Hindus extremists prohibited Christians from procuring basic necessities.

“We are not allowed to bring housing materials or food provisions or medicines, and nor are we allowed to buy anything from local shops,” he said. “We do not have any shop of our own. Here, we are struggling to live as human beings.”

The team also met a Hindu who had to pay 5,000 rupees (US$112) to get his tractor returned to him, as he had transported housing material for the construction of the house of a Christian.

In the house of a Christian in Keredi village in Phulbani Block, the team found a picture of a Hindu god. The resident, who was not identified in the report, explained that he had to display it in order to protect his family from harm.

The team found pictures of Hindu gods also in the house of a Christian in Gandapadar village in the Minia area, Phiringia Block. A woman in the house told the team that local Hindu nationalists had given her pictures of Hindu gods for worship.

“We have kept them, as they often come to check whether we have reconverted to Christianity,” she said.

Almost all Christians the team met complained that the local administration had done little to protect them and suspected that officials colluded with area Hindu nationalists.

Released on Nov. 8, the report asserts that Christians have been barred from taking water from a government well in Dakanaju village, under G. Udayagiri police jurisdiction in Tikabali Block. The village head, Sachindra Pradhan, has promised to take action “at the earliest,” it added.

Violence in Kandhamal and some other districts of Orissa state followed the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. The rampage killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to estimates by human rights groups.

The spate of attacks began a day after Saraswati’s killing when Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for his murder, although Maoists (extreme Marxists) active in the district claimed responsibility for it.

John Dayal, a Christian activist in Delhi, told Compass that “the apparatus of 2008 remains undisturbed.” The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was part of the ruling state alliance with the regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party at the time of the violence. Although the BJD broke up with the BJP in 2009, blaming it for the violence, the former cannot be excused, said Dayal.

“While the BJP is mainly to be blamed, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is not entirely innocent,” Dayal said. “Not  just that he allowed the BJP and RSS cadres to run amok when they were part of his government, turning a blind eye to their  very visible anti-Christian activities, but he was his own home [interior] minister and cannot really shirk command responsibility for the carnage together with his BJP ministerial colleagues and senior officers.”

Kandhamal district Magistrate Krishan Kumar, who was on a tour at press time, could not be contacted for comment despite repeated attempts.

Of the 648,201 people in Kandhamal district, 117,950 are Christian, mostly Dalit (formerly “untouchables” in the caste hierarchy in Hindu societies), according to the 2001 Census. Hindus, mainly tribal people and numbering 527,757, form the majority.

Report from Compass Direct News

Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election

Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.


Vague Religious Freedom

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Madhya Pradesh, July 31 (Compass Direct News) – As if conversion were illegal in India, nearly 50 Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal activists on Sunday (July 26) stormed the compound of the Assembly of God Bethel Church in Habibganj, Bhopal, accusing Christians of converting people. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that pastor K.A. George and a guest pastor were about to baptize a woman and her daughter when the extremists entered the church premises shouting “Jai Shri Ram [Victory to Lord Ram].” The Indian Express reported that Superintendent of Police R.S. Mishra stated that Hindu extremists Devendra Rawat, Kamlesh Thakur and others charged that conversions were taking place; church secretary Abraham George filed a counter-complaint that the VHP and Bajrang Dal disrupted the Sunday service. The VHP and Bajrang Dal extremists also accused the church of “allurement” in the conversion of the woman’s daughter, but a GCIC regional coordinator told Compass that the woman and her daughter have been worshipping there for many years and stated that they desired to receive baptism of their own free will. At press time, police were investigating the complaints of both the parties.

Madhya Pradesh – On Sunday (July 26) about 40 Hindu extremists from the Dharam Sena (Hindu Religious Army) attacked the Sneh Sadan (Home of Love) Institute run by Christians in Japalpur. A source reported that at about 12:30 a.m. the Hindu extremists shouting anti-Christian slogans tried to enter the institute for the handicapped run by the Methodist Church. Prior to the attack, the extremists filed a police complaint against the home manager, Lily Paul, for alleged forceful conversion. The police reached the premises before the extremists did major harm. Police took written statements about the institute from Paul and promised to carry out an inquiry. “Sneh Sadan is the abode of about 40 special people, and the incident has left us shaken,” Paul said. Police provided protection for the home.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Sunday (July 26) attacked a prayer meeting of St. Thomas Evangelical Church in Hassan, beat the pastor and destroyed church furniture. The extremists filed a complaint against pastor Basanth Kumar of forceful conversion and handed the church’s Bibles and hymnbooks to police, reported the Global Council of Indian Christians. Officers registered a case of forceful conversion against the pastor and released him on the condition that he would present himself whenever summoned. The next day at about 6 p.m., the police summoned the pastor and arrested him for “abetment of a thing.” He was released on bail on Tuesday (July 28) with the help of local Christian leaders.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu medical students at Gandhi Medical College under the influence of Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu council) on July 23 beat a professor and filed a complaint with the college principal accusing three faculty members of forceful conversion in Musheerabad. A source reported that the extremists had the Hindu medical students submit a letter to the principal charging that Prof. Anthony David, Dr. Sudhakar and Dr. Uday Kumar were forcibly converting people to Christianity. The principal called for a meeting, and about 100 Hindu extremists gathered at the college. The principal informed the extremists that the college would form a committee to investigate, and the panel reported that no religious conversions took place on the college premises. The extremists crowded around Sudharkar and Kumar, angrily questioning them, and after they left two unidentified extremists followed the third professor, David, to his room and beat him. The professor sustained minor injuries. Tension prevails on the college campus, a source said.

Tamil Nadu – Hindu extremists on July 22 assaulted a Christian media team and accused them of forceful conversion in Erode. The All India Christian Council reported that the intolerant Hindus attacked 10 members of the Young Men’s Evangelical Fellowship, South Division, while they were distributing gospel tracts. They seized and burned all literature, damaged their vehicle, kicked and beat the Christians and took them to a Hindu temple, where they were forced to lie down and pay homage to idols. An unidentified local Christian alerted the police, who came to the site and freed the Christians. One of the team members received hospital treatment, and the rest were provided first aid.

Karnataka – The Karnataka High Court on July 20 continued a stay order against demolition of the Indian Apostle Church (IAC) building in Channagiri, Davangere district, according to The Hindu. Area Christians had challenged the demolition order and charged that the district administration had taken several anti-Christian measures, including ordering the church demolition. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that previously police had disrupted the church’s Sunday worship service and closed the IAC, claiming that it had opened with an illegal license; officers issued arrest warrants against two pastors and seven Christians in Ajihalli village, Davanagere. Earlier, on May 29, the village head along with Hindu extremists had disrupted a prayer meeting led by pastor Prem Prasanth as the church building was being dedicated. The pastor told them he had obtained permission from the village head, but the chief denied issuing a license to the Christians. On June 25, the village head sent a notice to Pastor Prasanth cancelling the license for the church building. On July 7, police disrupted the worship service and closed the church. Later, when Pastor Prasanth and other Christians went to Channagiri police station to inform officials that they had obtained the license from the village head, officers filed false charges against them for rioting and voluntarily causing hurt.

Haryana – Hindu extremists from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on July 19 attacked a children’s educational center in Ambala, beating Christian staff members and ordering everyone to vacate the premises. A source reported that BJP Hindu extremists attacked pastor Daniel Kamaraj and his staff, who are running a free educational program under Children Compassion Ministry. The five Christian staff members sustained minor injuries. The intolerant Hindus accused pastor Kamaraj of forceful conversion and forced him to leave. The pastor went to the police station the next day, where officers told him to vacate the building as soon as possible. At press time the learning center had been relocated to the pastor’s home.

Andhra Pradesh – Police arrested a Christian woman identified only as Hemavathy on charges of “proselytization” on July 19 in Tirupati. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the arrests were made on the basis of the complaint filed by a medical officer from Shri Venkateswara Ayurvedic College-Hospital, who accused her of distributing religious pamphlets on hospital premises. Area leaders from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party staged a protest in front of the police station demanding action be taken against Hemavathy. The Hindu reported that Circle Inspector V. Subhannna said action would be taken in accordance with Government Order No.747, which prohibits “proselytization in and around Hindu temples and institutions.” The Christian woman was released on bail on July 21 at 6 p.m.

Karnataka – A mob of about 20 Hindu hardliners on July 19 attacked a prayer meeting and accused Christians of forceful conversion in Pillingiri, Shimago. At about 7 p.m. a pastor identified only as Chinnadurai was leading a prayer meeting at the home of a member of his Pentecostal Mission church when the intolerant Hindus stormed in and threatened and assaulted the Christians, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. The Hindu extremists filed a police complaint of forceful conversion and pressured officers to arrest the Christians. Police arrested the Christians for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” and unlawful assembly. The Christians were released the next day.

Andhra Pradesh – Police on July 19 arrested Pastor Devadass of Manna Church after Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh beat him and accused him of distributing gospel tracts on Hindu temple premises. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 10 extremists assaulted the pastor as he was returning from a Sunday worship meeting. They dragged him to a police station and accused him of distributing gospel tracts at the Rajarajeshwar Hindu temple in Vemulawada. Officers detained him for a couple of hours, releasing him on the condition that he return to the station the next day, when they took a written statement from him. On July 24 police arrested the pastor in his home for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class.” The pastor remained in Karimnagar district jail at press time.

Manipur – Village leaders in Huikap this month tried to decree that no corpses of Christians will be allowed to be buried in the village. The All Indian Christian Council reported that the unconstitutional order came after a 2-year-old boy from a Christian family drowned in a village pond on July 19; the body of the boy was buried in a church plot, but the next day anti-Christian villagers forced the father of the child and the pastor of a church to disinter it. Village authorities later agreed to let the boy’s body remain at the graveyard on the condition that the corpses of minor children be buried according to Hindu custom. This order was also unconstitutional, and Northeast Support Centre and Helpline spokesman Madhu Chandra told Compass that area police officials had issued an order to the Hindu village leaders to refrain from enforcing it. At press time calm had returned to the area.

Karnataka – Police on July 18 arrested four Christian workers in Bangalore after Hindu extremists dragged them out of a house, beat them mercilessly and charged them with forceful conversion in Bangalore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Hindu extremists attacked Madan Kumar, Amar Singh, Munendra Kollar and James Wesley while they were praying in a Christian’s home. The Christians were reported to have previously distributed gospel tracts and pamphlets. At 8:30 p.m. the Christians were taken to Gnanabharathi police station and arrested for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” and actions contrary to national integration. They were released on bail the next day.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists beat a pastor and accused him and his wife of forceful conversion on July 10 in Chitradurga. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that at about 10 a.m. the Hindu extremists, led by H.R. Kallesh, stormed the tea stall of a woman identified only as Sharada, wife of a pastor identified only as Nagaraj, and questioned her about her faith. The extremists verbally abused her, threatened to burn her alive and asked her how much money her family had received to convert to Christianity. They took her to a police station to file charges against her, also accusing her and her husband of forceful conversion. On hearing about the incident, the pastor rushed to the police station, where the extremists repeatedly struck him upon his arrival while officers stood by watching, according to EFI. The pastor also filed a complaint against the attackers. No arrests had been made at press time.

Karnataka – Police issued arrest warrants against pastor Godwin Nicholas and Charles Ravi Kumar on the basis of a complaint filed by Hindu extremists against them of forceful conversion and bribery in Hassan. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar filed a police complaint on July 10 in Arsikere police station falsely accusing Pastor Nicholas and Ravi Kumar of forceful conversion and offering people money to convert to Christianity. A First Information Report was registered against the Christians and arrest warrants were issued, but they were granted bail on July 13.

Gujarat – Suspected Hindu extremists on July 6 attacked a Christian school in Dahod. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that authorities of St. Stephen High School requested some female students with henna designs on their arms to wash them off in accordance with school rules. The parents of one unidentified student reported the matter to the Hindu extremists. The following day, the extremists barged into the school and asked authorities why the girls were asked to wash off the henna designs. Unable to listen in their fury, they started beating the principal and desecrated Christian statues at the school. EFI reported that the school remained closed the following day as a sign of protest against the incident, and area Christians wore black badges. The school filed a police complaint, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Student’s Council), formed under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on July 1 attacked St. Agnes School in Mahaboobnagar. Reacting to the punishment for disturbing class of a Hindu student identified only as Keerthi, the Hindu extremists along with the student’s brother attacked the Christian school shouting, “Jai shri Ram [Praise Lord Ram].” They destroyed furniture and other fixtures and threatened to harm school authorities. Both parties filed a police complaint. No arrests had been made at press time.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal (Youth Wing of the VHP) put up three signboards in Bastar in July sternly warning Christians not to preach in the area. The signboards, placed at three different sites, read, “Preaching about Jesus Christ is strictly prohibited in the area.” The signs include pictures of Hindu deities along with names of the extremists groups. Most of the churches in Bastar, which borders the troubled district of Kandhamal, Orissa state, were closed down as the Hindu extremists continually threatened tribal Christians there.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Islamic-based legislation may be a key issue in this year’s elections.

DUBLIN, February 2 (Compass Direct News) – As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. They say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.”

With legislative elections coming in April and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with several Islamic parties for the July presidential election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. These laws became possible following the enactment of the Regional Autonomy Law in 2000.

The form of these laws varies widely. Legislation in Padang, West Sumatra, requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found “loitering” alone on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested and charged with prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Quran literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism and gambling.

“Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails,” a lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass.

Some regencies have adopted sharia in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, according to Syafi’I Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

“For instance, the Padang administration issued a law requiring all schoolgirls, regardless of their religion, to wear the headscarf,” he told the International Herald Tribune. This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of the country’s constitution, he added. “Therefore the government must assist all religious communities to practice their beliefs as freely as possible and take actions against those who violate that right.”

While Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them. The Committee for the Implementation and Maintenance of Islamic Law (KPPSI) has held several congresses in Makassar, South Sulawesi with the goal of passing sharia-inspired legislation and obtaining special autonomy for the province, similar to that in Aceh.

KPPSI has also encouraged members to vote for politicians who share their goals, according to local news agency Komintra.


‘Threatening’ Decision

In February of last year, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the government saw no need to nullify some 600 sharia-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto’s decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Dr. Mohammad Mahfud, newly re-elected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting sharia-inspired laws.

“[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity,” he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post.

Mahfud contended that if Indonesia allowed sharia-based laws, “then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem.” According to Mahfud, sharia-based laws would promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 sharia-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

“Advocates of sharia-based laws will stress the divine origin of sharia and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They maintain that sharia is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy.”


Empowering Vigilantes

A national, sharia-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation.

The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

“This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI),” Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) told reporters. FPI is widely-regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

“Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community,” she added. “Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values.”

Although several Golkar Party politicians support sharia-based laws, senior Golkar Party member Theo Sambuaga has criticized politicians for endorsing such legislation to win support from Muslim voters. Several major parties openly back sharia laws, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party, and the Crescent Star party.


Key Election Issue

Sharia-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country’s Islamic parties in order to win a majority vote against the Golkar party, allied for this election with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP.

The coalition Yudhoyono could form, however, likely would come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance wrote in September 2008, “The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him.”

In 2004, Yudhoyono partnered with the NU-sponsored National Awakening Party, the National Mandate Party (founded by the Islamic purist organization Muhammadiyah) and the PKS to achieve his majority vote. Analysts predict PKS will again be a key player in this election.

Few realize, however, that PKS draws its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 with a firm belief in Islamic world dominance. Crushed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, members of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they taught in the nation’s universities – influencing the future founders of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Sudan’s National Islamic Front.

The Brotherhood took root at a university in Bandung, West Java in the 1970s in the form of Tarbiyah, a secretive student movement that eventually morphed into the Justice Party (JP) in 1998. Winning few votes, JP allied itself with a second party to form the PKS prior to the 2004 elections.

Since then, PKS has gained widespread support and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to Islamic values. Simultaneously, however, PKS leaders are vocal supporters of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, says the two organizations have much in common. In its founding manifesto, PKS calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Unlike JI, however, “the party can use its position in Parliament and its … network of cadres to advance the same goals incrementally, one victory at a time.”  

Report from Compass Direct News