Uzbekistan: Latest Persecution News

The link below is to an article reporting on the latest persecution news from Uzbekistan, where Bibles are being prohibited.

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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

Evangelist Arrested in Zanzibar, Tanzania

Elsewhere on island off East Africa, Christians prohibited from worshipping at university.

NAIROBI, Kenya, August 19 (CDN) — Christian university students on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, a predominantly Muslim area off the coast of East Africa, have been denied the right to worship, while on another part of the isle a Christian leader has been jailed.

Sources said evangelist Peter Masanja, a resident of Zanzibar’s southeastern town of Paje, was arrested by security agents sometime in early August. Earlier this year Masanja, a member of the Pentecostal Church in Zanzibar, would invite Christians to his house, as he had made part of his land available for church activities. Area Muslims interpreted it as plans to establish another church there, the sources said.

The rumor angered local residents, and they vowed to prohibit any Christian activities, the sources said.

“It was only after her husband failed to return home that Masanja’s wife knew that there was something amiss,” said a source who requested anonymity. “After several days of searching, reports reached the wife that Masanja had been arrested and imprisoned in Kilimani cell.”

Pastors from Tanzania’s Zanzibar Island sought to meet with prison authorities about Masanja’s arrest, but officials informed them that the person in charge of the prison was away on official business, said Bishop Obeid Fabian, chairman of an association of congregations known as the Fraternal Churches.

“We are asking for prayers for him and his family, that he would be released,” Fabian said.

At Zanzibar University, a private school in Tunguu 18 kilometers (12 miles) from Zanzibar Town, Islamic administrators have denied Christian students freedom of worship while retaining that constitutional right for Muslims, said Samson Zuberi, Christian Union students coordinator.

Three Christian Union student leaders have protested to school officials and threatened to go to court over the discrimination, he said. Although freedom of worship among Christians has long been restricted at the university, the decision to ban it completely caused an outcry. The vice-chancellor’s office on Dec. 28, 2009 issued the order forbidding Christian students from conducting their affairs and meetings on the school campus.    

Numbering about 100 at a university with more than 2,500 students, the Christian students say they have felt the administration increasingly discriminating against them. There are two mosques at the university, which is sponsored by an Islamic charity, Dar el Uman Charitable Association, registered in Geneva, Switzerland, according to the school’s Web site.

In an April 12 circular, university Dean of Students Mavua H. Mussa warned those defying worship regulations to seek other learning institutions, saying that the ban on religious activities in lecture theaters, halls of residence or anywhere else on campus was absolute.

Students said the ban violates sections 19(1) and 20(1) of the Zanzibar Constitution of 1984, which provide for freedom of association, including religious groups, free of government control. Articles 19(1) (2) and 20(1) of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania of 1977 provide for the same freedom, they said.

Fabian told Compass by telephone that the students will seek counsel from Christian students at universities in Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, Tanzania.

“We have advised that before they take the case to court, the three Christian Union leaders should travel to get counsel from their fellow students at the universities of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, especially the Christian law students, to get the correct interpretation of the Tanzanian constitution on the right of worship,” Fabian said.

He added that the students – Zuberi, regional Christian Union Student Chairman Ronald R. Urassa and Christian Union Student Secretary Neema Alex Langalli – need to raise US$800 each for the travel.

Similarly, the dress code at the university has caused tensions, sources said, as officials have threatened to expel female Christian students if they do not wear a veil and headscarf, or the Buibui and Hijab. University regulations state that, “For a female dressing, the clothes must cover from head to an ankle.”

Some of the lecturers have put female Christian students out of class if they do not wear the required Islamic dress, sources said.

They also noted that during the current Islamic month of Ramadan, a period of fasting by day, life for Christian students becomes difficult as university regulations forbid them to cook for themselves, and all cafeterias on or near university campuses are closed. The location of the school makes it difficult for Christian students to find meals outside the university cafeteria.

Even if they remain off campus, the conditions and practices of landlords discriminate against Christians, the sources said.

In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, churches face numerous challenges. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.

Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.

Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania might dominate them, and tensions have persisted.

Report from Compass Direct News

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives

Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.


Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.


Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.


Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

China Moves Uyghur Christian Prisoner, Allows Family Visit

Court rejects appeal of 15-year sentence for Alimjan Yimit.

DUBLIN, April 29 (CDN) — Authorities in Xinjiang Province recently moved Uyghur Christian Alimjan Yimit from a prison in Kashgar to a prison in the provincial capital Urumqi and allowed the first visit from family members since his arrest in January 2008, sources told Compass.

Alimjan (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) was noticeably thinner but in good spirits, the family told friends after their brief visit to him in Xinjiang No. 3 prison on April 20, one source told Compass. They were allowed only 15 minutes to speak with Alimjan via telephone through a glass barrier, the source said.

But Alimjan’s lawyers, Li Baiguang and Liu Peifu, were prohibited from meeting with him, despite gaining permission from the Xinjiang Bureau of Prison Management, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported on Saturday (April 24).

Officials have now granted Alimjan’s wife Gulnur (Chinese spelling Gulinuer) and other close family members permission to visit him once a month.

Alimjan and Gulnur pastored a Uyghur ethnic house church in Xinjiang prior to his arrest in January 2008.

Attorney Li told Radio Free Asia earlier this month that while the initial charges against Alimjan were both “instigating separatism” and “leaking state secrets” to foreign organizations, his actual offense was talking to visiting Christians from the United States.

The Kashgar Intermediate Court found Alimjan guilty of “leaking state secrets” on Oct. 27, 2009 and gave him a 15-year sentence. His lawyers appealed the sentence, but the People’s High Court of Xinjiang upheld the original verdict on March 16.

“This decision is illegal and void because it never succeeded in showing how Alimjan supplied state secrets to people overseas,” Li said, according to Radio Free Asia.

“Religion lies at the heart of this case,” fellow legal advocate Li Dunyong, who was effectively disbarred at the end of May 2008 when Chinese authorities turned down an annual application to renew his law license, told Radio Free Asia.

Zhang Kai, another Beijing lawyer who had defended Alimjan, suffered the same fate. (See “China Refuses to Renew Licenses for Human Rights Lawyers,” June 11, 2009.)

Alimjan’s legal team now plans to appeal to the Beijing Supreme Court, according to CAA.

Court Irregularities

Officials initially interrogated Alimjan during his employment by two foreign-owned companies and forbade him to discuss the questioning with anyone. In September 2007 they closed the business he then worked for and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity” among the Uyghurs.

Kashgar police then detained Alimjan on Jan. 11, 2008 on charges of endangering state security before formally re-arresting him on Feb. 20, 2008 for allegedly “inciting secession” and “leaking state secrets.”

He was then held for more than a year at the Kashgar Municipal Detention Center without facing trial.

After an initial closed hearing in the Kashgar Intermediate Court on May 27, 2008, court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors citing lack of evidence. During a second secret hearing in July 2008 the charge of “inciting secession” was dropped. After further investigation the case was returned to court officials for consideration in mid-October 2008.

On Mar. 30, 2009, just one week after a rare prison visit from his lawyer, prison officials transferred Alimjan to a hospital in Kashgar. Alimjan called out to onlookers, “I’m sick. Tell my lawyer to come quickly to see me,” according to a CAA report. Compass sources confirmed that Alimjan had been beaten in prison. (See “Detained Uyghur Christian Taken to Hospital,” April 16, 2009.)

Last October, authorities finally sentenced Alimjan to 15 years in prison for “leaking state secrets” to foreign organizations.

“It is the maximum penalty for this charge … which requires Alimjan’s actions to be defined as having caused irreparable, grave national damage,” Li Dunyong said in a CAA press statement announcing the verdict.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled the arrest and detention of Alimjan to be arbitrary and in violation of international law, according to CAA.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Islamic Extremists in Somalia Kill Church Leader, Torch Home

Al Shabaab militants execute pastor; government-aligned Islamists burn house containing Bible.

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 24 (CDN) — Islamic militants in Somalia tracked down an underground church leader who had previously escaped a kidnapping attempt and killed him last week, Christian sources said.

Islamic extremist al Shabaab rebels shot Madobe Abdi to death on March 15 at 9:30 a.m. in Mahaday village, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Johwar. He had escaped an al Shabaab attempt to kidnap him on March 2.

Abdi’s death adds to a growing number of Christians murdered by Islamic militants, but his was distinctive in that he was not a convert from Islam. An orphan, Abdi was raised as a Christian.

Sources said the militants prohibited his body from being buried, ordering that it be left to dogs as an example to other Christians. Al shabaab, which is fighting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed, has embarked on a campaign to rid the country of all non-Muslims.

“The al Shabaab say, ‘Leaving Abdi’s body outside is a warning to all that a murtid [infidel] is a disgrace to Muslims,’ hence creating fear to whoever would like to choose Christianity,” said a source.

In 2009 Islamic militants in Somalia sought out and killed at least 15 Christians, including women and children. This year, on Jan. 1 Islamic extremists shot an underground church leader to death. Having learned that he had left Islam to become a Christian, al Shabaab members murdered 41-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Ali after he had left his home in Hodan, on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

House Burning

The transitional government in Mogadishu fighting to retain control of the country treats Christians little better than the al Shabaab extremists do. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia (Islamic law) that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

Ahmed was formerly the leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamist array of sharia judges and militants that vied for power after losing control of much of southern Somalia at the end of 2006. A contingent of the ICU reached a power-sharing agreement with the TFG in January 2009 that resulted in the election of Ahmed as president.

The ICU still exists under the auspices of Ahmed’s TFG, and alleged members of the ICU last month set fire to the house of an underground church member they suspected of having left Islam. The gutted house is located on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

Having learned that there was a Bible and Christian pamphlets inside, the angry militants stormed the house in Hamarwien district of Mogadishu on Feb. 17 at 1:15 p.m. as a warning to those who dare possess any Christian literature, sources said.

“Since there is no law and order in this country, there is no one we can turn to for protection,” said the owner of the house, who requested anonymity and has relocated to another city. “But we know that we’re covered with the blood of Jesus Christ.”

The assailants looted the home before setting it afire. Area residents tried to extinguish the blaze, which left the house uninhabitable.

“I saw smoke coming out of the house, then I ran outside and I saw two men coming out of the house with a bucket of gasoline,” said a neighbor who sought anonymity. “One of the men was shouting, ‘Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar [God is Greater],’ then they entered a waiting car and drove off.”

An eyewitness told Compass that after the looting, the ICU extremists belonging to the TFG locked the doors before setting it on fire. At the time of the attack, there was one New King James Version of the Bible, along with some copies of Christian pamphlets that had been printed off of the Internet, according to sources.

They said they did not know who leaked information about the existence of Christian literature in the house.

“There were Christian books in the house at the time of the looting and arson attack,” said one church leader.

Islamic militants have displayed an unusual brutality in hunting down suspected converts to Christianity, with leaders of the underground church movement being executed as a means of discouraging others from joining the growing church. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

Lao Officials Force Christians from Worship at Gunpoint

Church members marched to open field, deprived of homes.

LOS ANGELES, February 8 (CDN) — About 100 local officials, police and villagers put guns to the heads of Christians during their Sunday morning service in a village in Laos last month, forcing them from their worship and homes, according to an advocacy organization.

Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported that in Katin village of Ta-Oyl district, Saravan Province, Lao authorities including the village chief, a religious affairs’ official, three district police and a 15-man volunteer unit joined 15 village police officers to force all 48 Christian adults and children of the church to an open field. 

Afterward, the officials confiscated all personal belongings from 11 homes of Christians and destroyed six of the 11 homes. They also confiscated a pig – equal to six weeks’ salary to the villagers – that belonged to one of the members of the congregation, according to HRWLRF.

Unable to cajole the Christians into renouncing Christ with the illegal use of arms, the officials forced them to walk six kilometers (nearly four miles) and then left them on the side of a road.

“While being forced with guns to their heads, the believers took only the personal belongings they could grab,” according to an HRWLRF statement.

Since then, officials have posted local police at the entrance of Katin village in order to keep the Christians from returning. The men, women and children of the church have been sleeping on the ground in the woods with hardly enough food supplies, equipment, or tools to survive, according to HRWLRF.

“They are without light, food and clean water, except for a small stream nearby,” the organization reported.

Laos is a Communist country that is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Around Jan. 18, a Saravan provincial religious affairs official identified only by his surname, Khampuey, and a Ta-Oyl district official identified only by the surname of Bounma tried to persuade the believers to renounce their Christian faith, according to the organization.

Why do you believe in it [the Bible]?” they asked the Christians. “It’s just a book.”

When the Christians responded that the Bible was no mere book but a gift from God, the officials pointed out that other poor villagers had received government assistance because they had not converted to Christianity. They asked the church if, being Christians, they were receiving such government aid.

HRWLRF reported that the Christians responded that regardless of what help they did or didn’t receive, they had received new life from God.

“Before, we were under the power of the spirits and had to sacrifice to them,” said one Christian. “Now, having believed in God, we no longer have to do any sacrifice.”

The officials further harangued them, saying, “See what happens to you because of your belief? You are now left in the middle of nowhere without any home, food, or help. You should deny your Christian belief and then you will be allowed back in your village.” The officials added, according to HRWLRF, that all 56 villages in Ta-Oyl district did not want them to continue in their Christian faith.

“These villages have said that they can accept lepers and demon-possessed persons living among them, but they cannot allow believers residing among them,” one official reportedly told the Christians. “If they do not want you, neither do we.”

Unable to persuade the believers to renounce Christ, the two officials prohibited them from returning to their home village to get their personal belongings, including tools and items needed to make a living and protect themselves.

Although Laos ratified the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights in 2009, thus asserting that it fully respects human rights and religious freedom, its mistreatment of Lao Christians in Katin village has continued beyond the confiscation and slaughter of pigs belonging to each of the nine Christian families on July 5, 2009 and the withdrawal of protection for Christian villagers on July 11, HRWLRF reported.

The Katin village leader has declared that spirit worship is the only acceptable form of worship in the community, HRWLRF reported. In the July 5 slaughter of one pig each from nine Christian families, officials said it was punishment for ignoring an order to abandon Christianity.

Local officials have a longer history of trying to eradicate Christianity in Katin village. On July 21, 2008, officials detained 80 Christians in the village after residents seized a Christian identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation.

When family members buried Pew and placed a wooden cross on his grave, officials accused them of “practicing the rituals of the enemy of the state” and seized a buffalo and pig from them as a fine.

On July 25, 2008, officials rounded up 17 of the 20 Christian families then living in the village – a total of 80 men, women and children – and detained them in a school compound, denying them food in an effort to force the adults to sign documents renouncing their faith. The other three Christian families in the village at that time had already signed the documents under duress.

As their children grew weaker, 10 families signed the documents and were permitted to return home. The remaining seven families were evicted from the village and settled in an open field nearby, surviving on whatever food sources they could find.

Suffering from the loss of their property and livelihoods, however, the seven families eventually recanted their faith and moved back into the village. But over time, some of the Christians began gathering again for prayer and worship.

On Sept. 8, 2008, provincial and district authorities called a meeting in Katin village and asked local officials and residents to respect the religious laws of the nation. Four days later, however, village officials seized a buffalo worth approximately US$350 from a Christian resident identified only as Bounchu, telling him the animal would be returned only if he renounced his faith. When he refused, they slaughtered the animal in the village square and distributed the meat to non-Christian residents.

“These tactics of starvation and destruction of personal properties as well as the use of force employed by the Lao officials in order to put pressure on the Katin believers to renounce their religious convictions should be condemned,” according to HRWLRF.

In spite of the hostilities, more households accepted Christ in Katin village last year, resulting in to the current total of 11 Christian households.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Why Bhutan’s Royalists Fear Christianity

Social, political factors behind country’s reluctance to allow Christianity to grow

THIMPHU, Bhutan, February 1 (CDN) — Bars, pubs and discos have become legal in Bhutan – a cause of concern for the older generation – but construction of worship buildings other than Buddhist or Hindu temples is still prohibited.

The prohibition remains in force even though Christians abide by Bhutan’s codes of conduct, speaking the Dzongkha language as well as the Nepali language at church gatherings, and wearing the national dress.

The National Assembly of Bhutan banned the practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions through edicts in 1969 and in 1979. But Christians do meet for Sunday worship, with attendance of more than 100 Christians in an underground church not unusual.

Why are Christians seen as a greater threat to the culture of the nation than the “democracy disco culture,” as one government official described the emerging subculture among the Bhutanese youth? It is believed that Christianity will create religious tensions in the country.

“There are reasons why Christianity is not being tolerated in the country,” said a former high government official who requested anonymity. “Look at the communal tensions in India and Nepal. Christianity can divide the Bhutanese society as well.”

He mentioned two incidents that appeared in the Bhutanese press last year, one in which 13 Christians allegedly hanged a woman they had accused of being a witch, and a suicide by a Hindu man who reportedly left a note saying his Christian wife and children were pressuring him to convert.

Christians here said these were isolated incidents that they strongly condemned.

“A majority of believers in Bhutan are not educated and are from lower economic backgrounds,” said the pastor of an underground church. “When open preaching is not allowed, this is what happens.”

Sound Christian teaching remains lacking, he said. There is a tremendous need for good Christian teaching and general education among the Christians in Bhutan, said the pastor.

“But little can be done given the restrictions we face here.”

Christians are only allowed to pray if someone is sick among their acquaintances, he added.

The government also fears that Christianity could cause societal tensions because of the general misconception that Christians lure others to the faith with money; converts are viewed with suspicion, said a government official on condition of anonymity.

“There should be one religion in one nation,” said the official, adding that religious freedom should be allowed only after educating people.

Threat from Within

Bhutanese officials are no strangers to religious conflict.

“You must also understand that the kind of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan is a minority sect within the two Buddhist divisions,” said the former government official.

A majority of Buddhists in Bhutan practice Vajrayāna Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, and belong to the larger Mahayana sect, one of the two major divisions of the religion along with the Theravada sect.

Theravada Buddhism has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries, including Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mahayana is practiced in a few East Asian countries, including Japan.

Unlike Theravada, which is more individualistic in its motivation, Mahayana Buddhism involves an aspiration to achieve enlightenment not only for one’s own sake, but for the sake of all “sentient” beings.

“There is a perceived threat to the Buddhist sect in Bhutan from the more powerful Theravada division,” said the source, without divulging more about the clash within Buddhism. “In such a scenario, how can you expect the government to willingly open doors to Christianity, which too is a threat?”

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, Christians are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. Around 75 percent of the people practice Buddhism, and roughly 22 percent are Hindus, mostly of Nepali origin.

Monarchy and Buddhism

Religion is so closely linked to the monarchy in Bhutan that one cannot exist without the other.

The national flag of Bhutan, which consists of a white dragon over a yellow and orange background, also has religion in it. While the yellow half represents civil and political powers of the King, the orange signifies monastic traditions of Buddha’s teachings.

The religious link is protected in the new constitution, which was adopted in March 2008. Article 2 notes that the dual powers of religion and politics shall be unified in the person of the king, “who, as a Buddhist, shall be the upholder of the Chhoe-sid,” the traditional dual system of governance characterized by the sharing of power between the religious and political heads of the country.

Given that the king embodies religious and political authority, the common people worship him.

Additionally, Buddhism is woven into the national fabric. Bhutan is the only country in the world that employs a “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) equation to measure its people’s level of happiness, and the GNH assumes that all citizens are Buddhist. Respondents to the GNH survey are asked questions concerning “spiritual activities like meditation and prayers, and consideration of karmic effects in daily life.”

The introduction of democracy in Bhutan did not involve disturbing the religious and cultural status quo. While former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006, brought democracy to Bhutan without any demand for it, people believe his intentions were far from transforming the country into a full democracy.

It is believed that the political turmoil in neighboring Nepal partly influenced King Singye Wangchuck’s decision to make the country, at least on paper, a constitutional monarchy after over 100 years of absolute monarchy. A decade-long civil war led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist – which took more than 12,000 lives – is believed to be behind the abolition of the royal parliamentary system and the adoption of a socialist republic in Nepal. In 2006 the then-king of Nepal, Gyanendra, agreed to relinquish sovereign power to the people.

All sources in Bhutan confirmed that the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008), was still the supreme ruler. Perhaps this is why both the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (Bhutan Peace and Prosperity) Party and the opposition People’s Democratic Party are royalists.

Pictures of kings of Bhutan are found everywhere in the country – in homes, shops, hotels, underground churches and on street walls. Many large posters with the kings’ pictures carrying the inscription “Kings of our Hearts” can be seen along the streets. Even public buses have “Our Kings Forever” painted on them.

“But you cannot expect things to change overnight,” said the former government official. “It’s not wise to allow development without any bridle. Things are improving slowly.

Added an optimistic source, “Freedom in the real sense of the word and in all spheres is bound to come to Bhutan. It’s just a matter of time.”

Report from Compass Direct News