Second suspect accused of ‘blasphemy’ is government informant, accused says.
ISTANBUL, December 9 (CDN) — A Christian in Afghanistan facing “apostasy” charges punishable by death is still without legal representation after authorities blocked a foreign lawyer’s attempt to visit him in prison, sources said.
A Christian lawyer from the region who requested anonymity travelled to Kabul on behalf of Christian legal rights organization Advocates International two weeks ago to represent 45-year-old Said Musa (alternatively spelled Sayed Mossa). Authorities denied him access to Musa and to his indictment file.
“If a man is not entitled to define his own beliefs, and to change those ideas, under the existing constitutional order of Afghanistan, then how is this government more moral than the Taliban’s?” the lawyer said in an e-mail to Compass.
After several court hearing postponements, Musa appeared before a judge on Nov. 27 without prior notice. Rejecting the case file as deficient, the judge sent it to the attorney general’s office for corrections, according to the lawyer. The lawyer said he has deduced that the file was missing a formal indictment and other “incriminating” evidence.
The legal expert said that according to Afghan law, Musa is entitled to see a copy of the indictment and review the evidence against him, but authorities have denied him both rights. If the prosecutor does not present the court with an indictment within 15 days of arrest, the attorney said, an accused person has the right to be released. Musa has been in jail since May 31.
Suspicious Second Suspect
The prosecutor in charge of western Kabul, Din Mohammad Quraishi, said two men, Musa and Ahmad Shah, were accused of conversion to another religion, according to Agence France-Presse. But Musa’s letters from prison and other sources indicate that Shah is a government informant posing as a Christian.
Musa and Shah appeared before the judge on Nov. 27 “shackled and chained” to each other, according to a source who was present. Though Shah, who was also arrested six months ago, has denied he is a Christian, the prosecutor said there was “proof” against him.
Musa and the other sources claim that Shah is an informant posing as a Christian in order to damage him and other Afghan Christians. They claim that Shah allegedly sent images of Christians worshiping to the country’s most popular broadcaster, Noorin TV, which aired them in May.
The broadcast appeared on an Afghan TV show called “Sarzanin-e-man,” or “My Homeland,” hosted by Nasto Nadiri, 27, an outspoken opponent of the government and a parliamentary hopeful. Noorin TV station is opposed to the government and does what it can to “embarrass” it, a source said.
The broadcast put in motion the events that got Musa arrested, sources said. The hour-long TV show sparked protests throughout the country against Christians and a heated debate in parliament. In early June, the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of converts from Islam.
Many converts to Christianity left the country, according to sources, and many were arrested, though the exact number is unknown.
Musa was concerned about the public outcry against Christians and went to his employer, the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC), to request personal leave the morning of May 31. Authorities arrested him after he left the building, and his family could not locate him for nearly two months.
The Christian suffered sexual abuse, beatings, mockery and sleep deprivation because of his faith in Jesus in the first months of his detention. Last month, after quiet diplomatic efforts, authorities transferred him to the Kabul Detention Center in the Governor’s Compound. There have been no reports of mistreatment since he was transferred.
The lawyer who tried to visit him said that all Afghans in the country are assumed to be Muslims, and this assumption is deeply ingrained in the culture. The result is lack of justice for the “deviants,” he said.
“It is the greatest shame on a family, clan and the nation, that someone would consider to leave Islam,” the lawyer told Compass. “I [saw] the face of the attorney general literally darken in distaste when he realized we came to assist this man who committed such a shameful offense. Therefore there are no ‘rights’ Christians can claim.”
The lawyer said that from the perspective of the court, if Musa continues to stand for his faith in Jesus, he will certainly be found guilty of “apostasy,” or leaving Islam.
Though no one knows when a court hearing will take place, monitors expect it could be any day and, as before, could come without warning. Musa is still looking for an Afghan lawyer that will agree to defend him in court.
In his latest letters from prison, Musa asked Christians to continue to pray for him and Afghanistan and “not give up.”
An amputee with a prosthetic leg, Musa worked for the ICRC for 15 years, fitting patients for prosthetic limbs. He stepped on a landmine when serving in the Afghan Army, and his injury required the amputation of his right leg below the knee, according to World Magazine.
Married and the father of six young children, Musa has been a Christian for eight years.
Another Christian in Prison
Another Afghan Christian is in prison for his faith, sources said. Shoib Assadullah, 25, was arrested on Oct. 21 for giving a New Testament to a man who reportedly turned him in to authorities.
Assadullah is in a holding jail in a district of Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan. Sources said his family has been unsuccessful at procuring his release despite paying bribes to officials. As in Musa’s case, because of the sensitivity of the charges, no lawyer has agreed to defend him. Assadullah has not reported any mistreatment while in prison.
He has stood before a judge at least once since his arrest. The judge asked him what faith he followed, and Assadullah told him he was a Christian, said a source who requested anonymity.
Although Assadullah’s family has tolerated his new faith, they are not pleased with it, the source said, and a few days ago his father disowned him. Assadullah became a Christian about five years ago.
“He wants others to know that he is not frightened, and that his faith is strong,” the source told Compass. “He is desperately missing having a Bible.”
Assadullah asked that people pray that Afghan believers would stay strong in their faith, the source said.
Musa and Assadullah are the only known Christian converts from Islam in prison in Afghanistan, and both face probable apostasy charges punishable by death under sharia (Islamic law), which is still applied in the country.
Last month, in its 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, the U.S. State Department reported that respect for religious freedom in Afghanistan diminished in the last year, “particularly for Christian groups and individuals.”
The constitution states that Islam is the “religion of the state” and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” The report stated that conversion from Islam is understood by Islamic clergy, as well as many citizens, to contravene the tenets of Islam.
Nevertheless, the country has signed the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulating religious freedom, including the freedom to change one’s faith. The nation’s constitution also provides a measure of religious liberties under Article 2, but Article 3 limits the application of all laws if they are contrary to the “beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”
Another source who requested anonymity said the proceedings against Musa and Assadullah typify the intolerance and abhorrence inherent in Islam toward open-mindedness and progress. He said that the only sentence possible would be death, and that if Musa were freed his only recourse would be to leave the country or be killed.
The source voiced exasperation toward the international community and defenders of human rights for not speaking up for the Christians in prison.
“We try as much as we can to push things in order to reveal this unfair situation, knowing that Afghanistan is a signatory of the Human Rights Convention,” he said. “But this serious failure of human rights is more or less accepted as a case ‘so sensitive’ that nobody wants to really fight against.”
According to the state department report, estimates of the size of the Christian community in Afghanistan range from 500 to 8,000.
Report from Compass Direct News
New wave of deportations raises concerns for foreigners married to Moroccans.
ISTANBUL, July 1 (CDN) — Moroccan authorities expelled eight more foreign Christians from the country last weekend, bringing the total of deported Christians since March to 128.
Two foreign women married to Moroccan Christians were included in this third wave of deportations since March, raising concerns that local authorities intend to harass the country’s small but growing Protestant community.
“They are all in fear,” a source told Compass, “because this happened to people who are married.”
One of the women, a Lebanese national married to a Moroccan, was diagnosed with cancer last month and is the mother of a 6-year old girl whom she was forced to leave behind.
A Spanish national, Sara Domene, 31, was also deported on Monday (June 28), according to news sources. Domene was working as a language teacher in the Western Sahara, a territory under Moroccan sovereignty.
Authorities called the foreigners to police stations across Morocco on Friday (June 25) and told them they had 48 hours to leave the country on grounds of “threatening public order.”
Other nationals who were forced to leave the country over the weekend came from France, Egypt, Lebanon, Switzerland, Nigeria and Spain.
A source explained that Moroccan authorities are essentially deporting Christians for “proselytism,” which is illegal in Morocco, but in order to justify the deportations they have claimed that the foreigners pose a threat to the state.
In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.
There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.
On June 17, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a U.S. congressional hearing on the ongoing deportations of U.S. citizens and other foreigners from Morocco.
Morocco has expelled about 58 U.S. citizens in the last four months. On Thursday (June 24) authorities informed about 10 U.S. citizens that they had 48 hours to leave the country, but within 24 hours the deportation orders were rescinded.
In a statement after the June 17 hearing, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who co-chairs the Lantos commission, said he would lobby for the U.S. government to withhold funds it has pledged to Morocco if he did not see improvements in the treatment of Christians there.
“I will continue to stay with this issue until a resolution has been reached,” he said. “Should this matter remain unresolved, it is possible that I may offer amendments in the Appropriations committee and on the House floor to restrict U.S. foreign aid from going to Morocco.”
In a letter addressed to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on June 17, Ambassador of Morocco to the United States Aziz Mekouar claimed that the deportations “solely and exclusively targeted proselytism activities, which are clearly and categorically forbidden by the laws of Morocco and the precepts of Islam.”
The ambassador said the Moroccan Penal Code imposes fines and prison sentences for those who “use means of seduction in the aim of undermining a Muslim’s faith or of converting him/her to another religion, either by exploiting his weaknesses or needs, or through the use, to this end, of health or educational establishments, as well as shelters or orphanages.”
Moroccan authorities have failed to provide foreign Christians whom they expelled with documented proof or official charges of their alleged proselytism activities. In his letter, the ambassador said the deportations were preferable to the “difficult ordeal” of incarceration and a trial as part of a criminal procedure against the Christians.
Wolf noted that that among those who were deported or denied reentry were businessmen, educators and humanitarian and social workers, “many of whom had resided in Morocco for over a decade in full compliance with the law. Additionally, those deported were forced to leave the country within two hours of being questioned by authorities, leaving everything behind.”
Christian foreigners who were able to obtain official deportation documents have appealed their cases in the Moroccan courts. The hearings for those cases started in May and are continuing.
Report from Compass Direct News
Local Christians sense authorities, extremists and society in collusion against them.
RABAT, Morocco, June 17 (CDN) — Moroccan Christians say Muslim extremists in the country are aiding and encouraging the government to pursue them by exposing and vilifying them on social networking site Facebook.
Facebook user Gardes Maroc Maroc has posted 32 image collages featuring dozens of Christian converts, calling them “hyena evangelists” or “wolves in lamb’s skins” who are trying to “shake the faith of Muslims.” That terminology on the website, which is in Arabic, matches that of Morocco’s anti-proselytizing law, which outlaws efforts to “shake the faith of Muslims.”
The online images depict Christian converts and their families from across the country and include details about their roles and activities in churches, their personal addresses and anecdotal stories attempting to malign them.
“These are some pics of Moroccan convert hyenas,” reads one image.
Since March, the Moroccan government has expelled more than 100 foreign Christians for alleged “proselytizing.” Authorities failed to give Christians deportation orders or enough time to settle their affairs before they left.
Observers have called this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate Muslim country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.
Amid a national media campaign to vilify Christians in Morocco, more than 7,000 Muslim clerics signed a statement denouncing all Christian activities and calling foreign Christians’ aid work “religious terrorism.”
On the Facebook page, Gardes Maroc Maroc makes a particularly strident call to Moroccan authorities to investigate adoptive parents of children from the village of Ain Leuh, 50 miles south of Fez. The user claims that local Christians under orders of “foreign missionaries” were attempting to adopt the children so missionary efforts would not “go in vain.”
On March 8, the Moroccan government expelled 26 Christian foreign staff members and parents working at Village of Hope in Ain Leuh.
Now efforts against national Christians have gained momentum. One image on the Facebook page challenged the Islamic Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments, saying, “Evangelist hyenas are deriding your Ministry.” The page with the images claimed that Christians had rented out an apartment belonging to that government ministry.
An entire page was dedicated to a well-known Christian TV personality in the Middle East, Rashid Hmami, and his family. The user also inserted pictures of hyenas next to those of Christians, presumably to indicate their danger to the nation.
National Christians Threatened
Moroccan Christians told Compass that authorities had begun harassing them even before the forced deportations of foreigners, and that pressure from officials only intensified in March and April.
Since the deportations started in early March, it seems that authorities, extremists and society as a whole have colluded against them, local Christians said. Dozens of Christians have been called to police stations for interrogation. Many of them have been threatened and verbally abused.
“They mocked our faith,” said one Moroccan Christian who requested anonymity. “They didn’t talk nicely.”
Authorities interrogated the convert for eight hours and followed him for three weeks in March and April, he said. During interrogation, he added, local police told him they were prepared to throw him in jail and kill him.
Another Moroccan Christian reported that a Muslim had taken him to court because of his Christian activities. Most Moroccan Christians that spoke to Compass said the attitudes of their Muslim relatives had shifted, and many have been kicked out of their homes or chosen to leave “to not create problems” for their families.
Moroccan converts meet in house churches. Some of them have stopped meeting until the pressure subsides.
“The government is testing the reactions,” said Moroccan lawyer Abdel Adghirni of the recent pressure on Christians.
The lawyer, known as one of the strongest defenders of Berber rights in Morocco, said that although the government’s recent reactions seem regressive, they are part of the nation’s societal transformation process.
“The government is trying to dominate,” said Adghirni. “They are defending themselves. They feel the wind of change. All of this is normal for me – like a complex chemistry that activates as different elements come into contact. Things are moving.”
In an effort to alert U.S. Congress to the sudden turn against religious tolerance in Morocco, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission is holding congressional hearings today on the deportations of foreign Christians from the country.
Earlier today, the National Clergy Council held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to congratulate the Moroccan government on religious tolerance. Organizers of the congressional hearings said they view the council’s press conference as an effort to counter the hearings.
The Rev. Rob Schenck, who heads the council, has had numerous exchanges with Moroccan Islamic leaders and in early April met with the Moroccan ambassador to the United States.
“I have enjoyed a close friendship of several years with the ambassador,” Schenck stated on his website.
Organizers of the congressional hearings have said they are baffled that the National Clergy Council, and in particular Schenck, would speak so highly of the Moroccan government at a time when it is in such blatant violation of human rights.
“There’s good and bad in every country, but what Morocco has done on the whole to advance religious liberty in that region of the world is extraordinary,” Schenck said in a media statement yesterday on Christian Newswire. “We hope to present a fair and balanced picture of this unusual country.”
Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said that the Moroccan government has deported nearly 50 U.S. citizens.
“In spite of this, the U.S. government has pledged $697.5 million to Morocco over the next five years through the Millennium Challenge Corporation,” he said. Wolf is advocating that the United States withhold the nearly $697.5 million in aid that it has pledged to Morocco.
“It is inappropriate for American taxpayer money to go to a nation which disregards the rights of American citizens residing in Morocco and forcibly expels Americans without due process of law,” he said.
Among those appearing at the hearing today is Dutch citizen Herman Boonstra, leader of Village of Hope, who was expelled in March. Boonstra and his wife were forced to leave eight adopted children in Morocco. Moroccan authorities have refused re-entry for the couple, as they have for all deported Christian foreigners.
Lawyer Adghirni said he believes Morocco cannot survive and develop economically – and democratically – without national diversity.
“We can’t be free without Christians,” Adghirni said. “The existence of Christians among us is the proof of liberty.”
One dead, two hospitalized; village chief threatens other residents.
DUBLIN, May 14 (CDN) — In spite of assurances of religious rights by officials in March, Lao Christians expelled from a village in Saravan Province in January are suffering from a prolonged lack of adequate food and clean water.
The lack of basic resources has led to diarrhea, dehydration, eye and skin infections, fainting and general weakness for the Christians expelled from Katin village, and one person has died, Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported.
A Christian who went by the single name of Ampheng died suddenly in April while praying for one of two other Christians who were hospitalized with illnesses caused by their living conditions, an HRWLRF spokesman told Compass. The exact cause and date of Ampheng’s death were not immediately known.
Expelled from their village at gunpoint on Jan. 18 for failing to renounce their faith, the 48 Christians were forced to build temporary shelters at the edge of the jungle, about six kilometers (nearly four miles) away from the village.
They have since survived on food found in the jungle and water from a hand-dug well that is unfit for cooking or drinking, sources told HRWLRF.
District officials in early May gave the Christians permission to return to Katin village and take rice from their family rice barns to prevent starvation, said another source on condition of anonymity.
In addition, some of the Christians have returned to tend their family rice fields, fearing that if the fields are completely abandoned they may lose the right to cultivate them next year. Water buffaloes essential for farm work, however, were confiscated in January along with the Christians’ homes and registration papers, according to HRWLRF.
When the Christians interred Ampheng at the local burial ground, district officials fined them for failing to produce the required proof of house registration, according to HRWLRF.
Katin’s village chief recently warned other residents that their personal possessions would be confiscated if they had any contact with the expelled Christians. If any family continued to maintain contact despite repeated warnings, their own homes would be torn down, the chief reportedly said.
Official reactions to the plight of the Christians have been mixed. In March, a delegation of provincial and district officials led by Gov. Khamboon Duangpanya visited the Christians at their jungle site and assured them of their legal right to embrace the faith of their choice and to live anywhere in the district.
Just days earlier, however, the district head, identified only as Bounma, summoned seven of the Christians to his office and said that he would not tolerate the existence of Christianity in areas under his control. (See “Lao Officials Visit Expelled Christians, Give Assurances,” March 19.)
High level officials failed to intervene last July when villagers seized a Christian identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation. Village officials later fined Pew’s family for erecting a cross on his grave, and then detained 80 Christians in a school compound, denying them food and pressuring them to renounce their faith.
The heads of 13 families then signed documents renouncing Christianity in order to protect their children, but most resumed attendance at worship meetings within a few months.
Provincial officials did call a meeting in September 2008 asking Katin authorities to respect Lao religious laws and allow the Christians freedom to worship, but their request was ignored.
A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantees the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.
Report from Compass Direct News
Islamists pressure officials to stop Baptist services; Batak worshippers also told to cease.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, February 4 (CDN) — Local governments have ordered the closure of two churches on Indonesia’s Java island.
Under pressure from Islamist groups, authorities ordered Christian Baptist Church in Sepatan, Tangerang district, Banten Province to cease services. In Pondok Timur, near Bekasi in West Java, officials abruptly closed the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church (HKBP) after delaying a building permit for four years.
Tangerang district authorities issued a decree on Jan. 21 ordering all worship activities to cease at the Baptist church. At a meeting in the district offices, officials pressured church officials to sign a statement that they would stop all worship activities, but they refused.
The Rev. Bedali Hulu said that he received the government order on Jan. 26. In addition, a sign was placed on his church’s worship building saying, “Stop! This building violates government decree number 10 of 2006.”
Hulu told Compass that on Dec. 7 a banner was placed on the street leading to the housing area that said, “We Reject the Presence of Uncontrolled Churches in our Area,” and “We Reject Uncontrolled Churches in Sepatan District.” On Dec. 12, citizens presented a letter rejecting the presence of the congregation to church leaders.
The church has permission to worship from both local citizens and the Christians in accordance with a Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006, Hulu said.
“However, the pressure from Islamic groups is so strong, it’s as if the local government can do nothing,” he said.
Islamic groups stirred up demonstrations against the church on Dec. 19, when 30 people demonstrated during a Christmas celebration for children, and another demonstration followed the next day. On Dec. 27, a large crowd from the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) arrived and demanded that worship cease.
Police on Dec. 29 issued a letter ordering that services stop because they violated local government regulations. The next day church leaders met with local officials but did not reach an agreement.
The church of 130 people has been facing such obstacles since 2006. It began in 2005 after reporting to local authorities and receiving permission.
Opposition from the FPI began the next year, and the church was forced to move services from house to house. On Nov. 4, 2007, as children attended Sunday school, around 10 FPI members arrived and broke up the meeting. On Nov. 19 of that year, several FPI members sent a letter to Hulu warning him and his family to leave the village within six days or the extremists would chase them out.
Hulu left temporarily on the advice of police, but his wife and mother-in-law were allowed to remain.
Last year, unidentified people burned the church building on Sept. 20; police have done nothing, he said.
Near the city of Bekasi, West Java, the government has given a deadline for the cessation of services to the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church in Pondok Timur. The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak said that services were ordered to cease after last Sunday (Jan. 31).
The government requested that church officials sign a letter agreeing to this order, but they refused, Simanjuntak said.
The pastor said a local official told them that the order was based on a meeting between the local government and nearby residents who objected to worship services. Simanjuntak told Compass that they were invited to a meeting with the residents who objected, the village officials and the head of the Interfaith Harmony Forum for Bekasi City, Haji Hasnul Chloid Pasaribu. Instead of discussing the situation, however, officials immediately gave the church a letter stating that permission for services extended only to Jan. 31.
“The letter was composed after consulting only one side,” said Simanjuntak. “The church aspirations were never heard.”
The church had been worshipping at that location since 2006.
“From the beginning we worked on the permission, starting at the block level and village level,” he said. “At that time we received permission to worship at my home. We never had problems in our relations with the local citizens.”
The church applied for a worship building permit in 2006, but local officials have yet to act on it, he said.
“Are we not allowed to worship while awaiting the building permit?” Simanjuntak said.
Rev. Gomar Gultom, general secretary of the Indonesian Fellowship of Churches, said that the organization will formulate a request to the Indonesian Senate to provide solutions for the two churches.
“In the near future, we will meet senators from the law and religion committees to discuss this matter,” Gomar said.
Johnny Simanjuntak of the Indonesian National Human Rights Committee told Compass that the government has failed to carry out its constitutional duty to protect freedom of worship for all citizens.
“Clearly the stoppage of any particular religious activity by the government is proof that the government is neglecting the human rights of its citizens,” he said.
Report from Compass Direct News
Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.
THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.
Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.
There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.
Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.
An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.
If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.
“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”
The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.
The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”
Still a Monarchy
Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”
His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.
Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.
“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”
To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.
“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”
The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.
“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”
Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”
The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.
According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.
Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.
“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”
His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”
The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.
According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.
In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.
The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.
In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.
Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.
In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”
The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.
The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.
The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.
But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”
What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.
The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.
What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”
Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”
According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”
“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Two evangelical archeologists have expressed caution in evaluating reports that ancient Egyptian coins bearing the name and image of the biblical Joseph have been discovered among unsorted artifacts at the Museum of Egypt, reports Baptist Press.
“The scholarly community will need to see the full report and images of the artifacts to make a judgment in regard to the interpretation of these objects as coins,” Steven Ortiz, associate professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said.
“It is more likely that these are amulets or jewelry. The initial reports are probably based on an initial zeal to support the koranic verses that mention coins associated with Joseph rather than a comprehensive study of the finds,” Ortiz told Baptist Press.
Al Ahram newspaper in Cairo first carried a report about the artifacts, and a subsequent report appeared in The Jerusalem Post Sept. 25, based on a translation of the original article completed by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The research has not appeared in a scholarly journal.
The Post said the significance of the find is that archeologists have located “scientific evidence countering the claim held by some historians that coins were not used for trade in ancient Egypt, and that this was done through barter instead.”
MEMRI’s translation said the artifacts initially were believed to be charms, but a thorough examination revealed that the objects bore the year in which they were minted as well as their value.
“Some of the coins are from the time when Joseph lived in Egypt, and bear his name and portrait,” the report said. “… This [find] prompted researchers to seek and find Koranic verses that speak of coins used in ancient Egypt.”
Robert Griffin, an ancient Egyptian history scholar at the University of Memphis, noted that he couldn’t make an assessment without seeing the artifacts or scholarly reports, so he wasn’t ready to accept the discovery as it is being promoted.
“My initial response is one of skepticism in that the ‘interpretation’ of the coins is quite subjective,” Griffin told BP.
The Al Ahram article said the coins are from many different periods, “including coins that bore special markings identifying them as being from the era of Joseph. Among these, there was one coin that had an inscription on it, and an image of a cow symbolizing Pharaoh’s dream about the seven fat cows and seven lean cows ….”
“It’s a bit of a stretch, to say the least,” Griffin said, “especially when you consider that one of the most prominent goddesses in Egyptian mythology is Hathor, who is represented as a cow or a woman with cow’s horns as part of her crown.”
Hathor was popular in the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period, circa 1800-1600 B.C., which corresponds with the general time period of Joseph, Griffin said.
Also, Al Ahram said Joseph’s name appears twice on that particular coin, written in hieroglyphics, “once the original name, Joseph, and once his Egyptian name, Saba Sabani, which was given to him by Pharaoh when he became treasurer.”
“I would be interested to see the actual writing of what the researcher claims are the names of Joseph,” Griffin said. “The English transliteration he gives for the ‘Egyptian name’ of Joseph is close in form but not exactly as it would be transliterated from the Hebrew text.”
Based on what he knows at this point, Griffin said he would hesitate to say the artifacts are definitive proof of the existence of Joseph in Egypt.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Through August, more violence against Christians reported in state than in any other.
NEW DELHI, September 21 (CDN) — With at least 43 incidents of anti-Christian violence, Karnataka saw more attacks on Christians in the first eight months of this year than any other state in India, according to advocacy organizations.
The figure compares with 35 attacks on churches, worship services and Christians during the same period last year in the state, which has become the center of violence against Christians. The states with the next highest incidents of anti-Christian violence from January through August this year were Andhra Pradesh with 14 and Madhya Pradesh with 11, according to figures from the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) and the All India Christian Council.
Former Chief Minister of Karnataka H.D. Kumaraswamy on Sept. 11 called on Gov. H.R. Bhardwaj to rein in abuses by the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to ensure that law and order is maintained, reported the GCIC. In several districts of Karnataka during the first eight months of the year, local authorities allowed Hindu extremists to beat pastors, disrupt prayer meetings and worship services, and burn, vandalize, demolish or shut down prayer halls.
After August last year the number of violent incidents against Christians in Karnataka raced up, with a total of 112 attacks on Christians in 2008, and the Christian community fears a repeat of hostilities.
Kumaraswamy noted that a Sept. 10 attack on St. Francis De Sales Church at Hebbagudi, on the outskirts of Bangalore, came just days after Gov. Bhardwaj voiced concern over the security of minorities in the state. Armed attackers broke into the church, damaged statues and other items, smashed windows and destroyed a house behind the building, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Church damages were estimated at 200,000 rupees (US$4,173).
“It is unfortunate that the government did not take any action to curb communal menace even after your caution,” Kumaraswamy wrote in a memorandum to the governor, adding that Gov. Bhardwaj was constitutionally bound to stop state security personnel from violating the law.
The former chief minister said he felt that the attack on the church, located close to the Hebbagudi police station on a busy road, reflected growing religious intolerance and tension in the state, and he criticized Home Minister V.S. Acharya for terming the attack a “minor incident.”
Archbishop of Bangalore Bernard Moras told Compass that past experience leaves him little hope for future justice.
“The state government has promised to make an immediate inquiry into the recent church attack in Hebbagudi, but nothing has been done so far, and we have no results whatsoever from the Justice B.K. Somashekar Commission of Inquiry made into church attacks last year,” he said. “Sad as it is, we feel that justice delayed is justice denied.”
Former chief minister Kumaraswamy has demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into attacks on prayer halls in the state. The leader of the opposition in the state Legislative Assembly, Siddaramaiah (who goes by a single name), has also demanded a CBI inquiry into all attacks on minorities and places of worship. The Hindu reported that he had asked state Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa to stop blaming others for the mistakes of his government.
Siddaramaiah told media on Sept. 13 that members of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar were involved in the attacks on churches.
“The BJP government led by B.S. Yeddyurappa has failed to take action against those involved in these incidents that created unrest in society, and now the chief minister is blaming others for the mistakes committed by his government, which has resulted in a law-and-order problem in the state,” he said.
The Hindu reported Siddaramaiah as saying that in an effort to cover up their mistakes, the chief minister and his cabinet dismissed the accusations as efforts to topple his government.
“If the chief minister has any proof to support his statements, let him hand over the issue to the CBI,” Siddaramaiah added. “The truth will be out.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also recently remarked that Karnataka has witnessed a number of incidents of communal violence this year.
“What is more worrisome is that the incidents were not limited to one or two districts,” Singh said in comments that Chief Minister Yedduyurappa brushed off as untrue; the chief minister referred to the violence as a “few stray incidents” that were “blown out of proportion.”
Tensions are high in the districts of Davangere, Mangalore, Bangalore, and also potentially volatile are the districts of Chickmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimago, Bagalkot, Dharwad and Kodagu, reported the GCIC.
Chief Minister Yeddyurappa reportedly has instructed police to provide security at all religious venues and directed them to take steps to take preventative measures. City Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari has reportedly said the chief minister ordered security officers to deal sternly with those involved in incidents of religious violence.
The Bangalore Rural police on Sept. 12 reportedly handed over the investigation of the attack on St. Francis De Sales to the Criminal Investigation Department.
Attempted Anti-Conversion Law
Foremost among priorities of the Hindu nationalist BJP when it came to power in Karnataka last year was to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti- Christian violence in other states.
Alarmed by what they said was an increase in conversions to Christianity, six prominent Hindu leaders on June 25 said that they had urged Chief Minister Yedduyurappa to introduce “anti-conversion” laws similar to those of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, reported The Hindu. Passage of an anti-conversion bill has been left hanging, however, with negative publicity over communal violence and Christian protests against such a bill.
Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. The laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations.
Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Several cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in more than four decades since such laws were enacted.
Naveen Kumar of the Federation of Christian Churches and Organizations told Compass that Christians from different districts in Karnataka have come out in protest against such a bill since August of 2008. The Christians believe that the passing of an anti-conversion bill in the state would heighten atrocities against them.
Of the 52.8 million people in Karnataka, Christians number slightly more than 1 million.
Report from Compass Direct News