Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan

Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ

Court sentences him to three years on dubious charge of ‘attempt to promote civil unrest.’

NEW DELHI, October 18 (CDN) — A court in predominantly Buddhist Bhutan has sentenced a Christian to three years in prison for “attempting to promote civil unrest” by screening films on Christianity.

A local court in Gelephu convicted Prem Singh Gurung, a 40-year-old ethnic Nepalese citizen from Sarpang district in south Bhutan, on Oct. 6, according to the government-run daily Kuensel.

Gurung was arrested four months ago after local residents complained that he was showing Christian films in Gonggaon and Simkharkha villages in Jigmecholing block. Gurung invited villagers to watch Nepali movies, and between each feature he showed films on Christianity.

Government attorneys could not prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that Gurung promoted civil unrest, and therefore “he was charged with an attempt to promote civil unrest,” the daily reported.

Gurung was also charged with violation of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act of 2006. Sections 105(1) and 110 of this law require that authorities examine all films before public screening.

A Christian from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, told Compass that the conviction of Gurung disturbed area villagers.

While Gurung has the right to appeal, it remained unclear if he had the resources to take that course.

Both Gonggaon and Simkharkha are virtually inaccessible. It can take up to 24 and 48 hours to reach the villages from the nearest road.

“Both villages do not have electricity,” the daily reported. “But Prem Singh Gurung, with the help of some people, is believed to have carried a projector and a generator to screen the movies in the village.”

Over 75 percent of the 683,407 people in Bhutan are Buddhist, mainly from western and eastern parts. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

It is also estimated that around 6,000 Bhutanese, mostly from south, are Christian in this landlocked nation between India and China. However, their presence is not officially acknowledged in the country. As a result, they practice their faith from the confines of their homes, with no Christian institution officially registered.

Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan, and the government is mandated to protect its culture and religion according to the 2008 constitution. As in other parts of South Asia, people in Bhutan mistakenly believe that Christianity is a Western faith and that missionaries give monetary benefits to convert people from other religions.

Yesterday’s Kuensel published an opinion piece by a Bhutanese woman from New York who described herself as “an aspiring Buddhist” condemning both the conviction of Gurung and Christian “tactics.”

“Although we may not like the tactics used by the Christians to proselytize or ‘sell’ their religion to impoverished and vulnerable groups, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture, in terms of religious tolerance, and what constitutes ‘promoting civil unrest,’” wrote Sonam Ongmo. “If we truly want to establish ourselves as a well-functioning democracy, with equal rights for all, let’s start with one of the fundamental ones – the right to choose one’s faith. We have nothing to worry about Buddhism losing ground to Christianity, but we will if, as a predominantly Buddhist state, we start to deny people the right to their faith.”

While her view is representative of liberal Buddhists in Bhutan, a reader’s response in a forum on Kuensel’s website reflected the harder line.

“These Christians are a cancer to our society,” wrote a reader identifying himself as The Last Dragon. “They had crusades after crusades – we don’t need that. We are very happy with Buddhism. Once Christianity is perfect – as they always claim [it] to be, then let’s see.”

In July, the government of Bhutan proposed an amendment in the Penal Code of Bhutan which would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement.” (See,  “Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law,” July 21.)

Christian persecution arose in Bhutan in the 1980s, when the king began a “one-nation, one-people” campaign to “protect the country’s sovereignty and cultural integrity.” Ethnic Nepalese, however, protested the move on grounds of discrimination. Authorities responded militarily, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were secret Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, in accordance with the wish of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. Since the advent of democracy, the country has brought in many reforms. It is generally believed that the government is gradually giving more freedom to its citizens.

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley, are respected by almost all Bhutanese and are seen as benevolent rulers.

Report from Compass Direct News

Motive for Aid Worker Killings in Afghanistan Still Uncertain

Taliban takes responsibility, but medical organization unsure of killers’ identity.

ISTANBUL, August 12 (CDN) — The killing of a team of eye medics, including eight Christian aid workers, in a remote area of Afghanistan last week was likely the work of opportunistic gunmen whose motives are not yet clear, the head of the medical organization said today.

On Friday (Aug. 6), 10 medical workers were found shot dead next to their bullet-ridden Land Rovers. The team of two Afghan helpers and eight Christian foreigners worked for the International Assistance Mission (IAM). They were on their way back to Kabul after having provided medical care to Afghans in one of the country’s remotest areas.

Afghan authorities have not been conclusive about who is responsible for the deaths nor the motivation behind the killings. In initial statements last week the commissioner of Badakhshan, where the killings took place, said it was an act of robbers. In the following days, the Taliban took responsibility for the deaths.

The Associated Press reported that a Taliban spokesman said they had killed them because they were spies and “preaching Christianity.” Another Taliban statement claimed that they were carrying Dari-language Bibles, according to the news agency. Initially the attack was reported as a robbery, which IAM Executive Director Dirk Frans said was not true.

“There are all these conflicting reports, and basically our conclusion is that none of them are true,” Frans told Compass. “This was an opportunistic attack where fighters had been displaced from a neighboring district, and they just happened to know about the team. I think this was an opportunistic chance for them to get some attention.”

A new wave of tribal insurgents seeking territory, mineral wealth and smuggling routes has arisen that, taken together, far outnumber Taliban rebels, according to recent U.S. intelligence reports.

Frans added that he is expecting more clarity as authorities continue their investigations.

He has denied the allegation that the members of their medical team were proselytizing.

“IAM is a Christian organization – we have never hidden this,” Frans told journalists in Kabul on Monday (Aug. 9). “Indeed, we are registered as such with the Afghan government. Our faith motivates and inspires us – but we do not proselytize. We abide by the laws of Afghanistan.”

IAM has been registered as a non-profit Christian organization in Afghanistan since 1966.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former political candidate, dismissed the Taliban’s claims that team members were proselytizing or spying, according to the BBC.

“These were dedicated people,” Abdullah said according to the BBC report. “Tom Little used to work in Afghanistan with his heart – he dedicated half of his life to service the people of Afghanistan.”

Abdullah had trained as an eye surgeon under Tom Little, 62, an optometrist who led the team that was killed last week. Little and his family had lived in Afghanistan for more than 30 years with IAM providing eye care.

IAM has provided eye care and medical help in Afghanistan since 1966. In the last 44 years, Frans estimates they have provided eye care to more than 5 million Afghans.

Frans said he doesn’t think that Christian aid workers are particularly targeted, since every day there are many Afghan casualties, and the insurgents themselves realize they need the relief efforts.

“We feel that large parts of the population are very much in favor of what we do,” he said. “The people I met were shocked [by the murders]; they knew the members of the eye care team, and they were shocked that selfless individuals who are going out of their way to actually help the Afghan people … they are devastated.”

The team had set up a temporary medical and eye-treatment camp in the area of Nuristan for two and a half weeks, despite heavy rains and flooding affecting the area that borders with Pakistan.

Nuristan communities had invited the IAM medical team. Afghans of the area travelled from the surrounding areas to receive treatment in the pouring rain, said Little’s wife in a CNN interview earlier this week, as she recalled a conversation with her husband days before he was shot.

Little called his wife twice a day and told her that even though it was pouring “sheets of rain,” hundreds of drenched people were gathering from the surrounding areas desperate to get medical treatment.


The Long Path Home

The team left Nuristan following a difficult path north into Badakhshan that was considered safer than others for reaching Kabul. Frans said the trek took two days in harsh weather, and the team had to cross a mountain range that was 5,000 meters high.

“South of Nuristan there is a road that leads into the valley where we had been asked to come and treat the eye patients, and a very easy route would have been through the city of Jalalabad and then up north to Parun, where we had planned the eye camp,” Frans told Compass. “However, that area of Nuristan is very unsafe.”

When the team ended their trek and boarded their vehicles, the armed group attacked them and killed all but one Afghan member of the team. Authorities and IAM believe the team members were killed between Aug. 4 and 5. Frans said he last spoke with Little on Aug. 4.

IAM plans eye camps in remote areas every two years due to the difficulty of preparing for the work and putting a team together that is qualified and can endure the harsh travel conditions, he said.

“We have actually lost our capacity to do camps like this in remote areas because we lost two of our veteran people as well as others we were training to take over these kinds of trips,” Frans said.

The team of experts who lost their lives was composed of two Afghan Muslims, Mahram Ali and another identified only as Jawed; British citizen Karen Woo, German Daniela Beyer, and U.S. citizens Little, Cheryl Beckett, Brian Carderelli, Tom Grams, Glenn Lapp and Dan Terry.

“I know that the foreign workers of IAM were all committed Christians, and they felt this was the place where they needed to live out their life in practice by working with and for people who have very little access to anything we would call normal facilities,” said Frans. “The others were motivated by humanitarian motives. All of them in fact were one way or another committed to the Afghan people.”

The two Afghans were buried earlier this week. Little and Terry, who both had lived in the war-torn country for decades, will be buried in Afghanistan.

Despite the brutal murders, Frans said that as long as the Afghans and their government continue to welcome them, IAM will stay.

“We are here for the people, and as long as they want us to be here and the government in power gives us the opportunity to work here, we are their guests and we’ll stay, God willing,” he said.



On Sunday (Aug. 8), at his home church in Loudonville, New York, Dr. Tom Hale, a medical relief worker himself, praised the courage and sacrifice of the eight Christians who dedicated their lives to helping Afghans.

“Though this loss has been enormous, I want to state my conviction that this loss is not senseless; it is not a waste,” said Hale. “Remember this: those eight martyrs in Afghanistan did not lose their lives, they gave up their lives.”

Days before the team was found dead, Little’s wife wrote about their family’s motivation to stay in Afghanistan through “miserable” times. Libby Little described how in the 1970s during a citizens’ uprising they chose not to take shelter with other foreigners but to remain in their neighborhood.

“As the fighting worsened and streets were abandoned, our neighbors fed us fresh bread and sweet milk,” she wrote. “Some took turns guarding our gate, motioning angry mobs to ‘pass by’ our home. When the fighting ended, they referred to us as ‘the people who stayed.’

“May the fruitful door of opportunity to embrace suffering in service, or at least embrace those who are suffering, remain open for the sake of God’s kingdom,” she concluded.


Concern for Afghan Christians

Afghanistan’s population is estimated at 28 million. Among them are very few Christians. Afghan converts are not accepted by the predominantly Muslim society. In recent months experts have expressed concern over political threats against local Christians.

At the end of May, private Afghan TV station Noorin showed images of Afghan Christians being baptized and praying. Within days the subject of Afghans leaving Islam for Christianity became national news and ignited a heated debate in the Parliament and Senate. The government conducted formal investigations into activities of Christian aid agencies. In June IAM successfully passed an inspection by the Afghan Ministry of Economy.

In early June the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of converts, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“Those Afghans that appeared on this video film should be executed in public,” he said, according to the AFP. “The house should order the attorney general and the NDS (intelligence agency) to arrest these Afghans and execute them.”

Small protests against Christians ensued in Kabul and other towns, and two foreign aid groups were accused of proselytizing and their activities were suspended, news sources reported.

A source working with the Afghan church who requested anonymity said she was concerned that the murders of IAM workers last week might negatively affect Afghan Christians and Christian aid workers.

“The deaths have the potential to shake the local and foreign Christians and deeply intimidate them even further,” said the source. “Let’s pray that it will be an impact that strengthens the church there but that might take awhile.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law

Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.


‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.


Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”



Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Indonesian Muslims Call for Halt to ‘Christianization’

Forum highlights religious tensions in Bekasi, West Java.

DUBLIN, July 2 (CDN) — Muslim organizations in Bekasi, West Java, on Sunday (June 27) declared their intention to establish paramilitary units in local mosques and a “mission center” to oppose “ongoing attempts to convert people to Christianity,” according to the national Antara news agency.

At a gathering at the large Al Azhar mosque, the leaders of nine organizations announced the results of a Bekasi Islamic Congress meeting on June 20, where they agreed to establish a mission center to halt “Christianization,” form a Laskar Pemuda youth army and push for implementation of sharia (Islamic law) in the region, The Jakarta Post reported.

“If the Muslims in the city can unite, there will be no more story about us being openly insulted by other religions,” Ahmad Salimin Dani, head of the Bekasi Islamic Missionary Council, announced at the gathering. “The center will ensure that Christians do not act out of order.”

Observing an increasing number of house churches, Muslim organizations have accused Bekasi Christians of aggressive proselytizing. The Rev. Simon Timorason of the West Java Christian Communication Forum (FKKB), however, told Compass that most Christians in the area do not proselytize and meet only in small home fellowships due to the lack of officially recognized worship venues.

Many Christian seminary graduates prefer to remain on Java rather than relocate to distant islands, Timorason added, making West Java the ideal place to launch new home-based fellowships for different denominations. But neighbors see only the multiplication of churches, he said, and therefore suspect Muslims are converting to the Christian faith.

“The ideal solution is to have one building with a permit to be used by different denominations in each housing complex,” Timorason said. “If every denomination wants their own church in the same area, it’s a problem.”


Declaration of Intent

Kanti Prajogo, chairman of the Congress committee, had hoped to present a written declaration of intent to city officials at the mosque gathering, but officials did not respond to his invitation, according to The Jakarta Post.

Around 200 people attended the June 20 Congress, representing local organizations such as the Bekasi Interfaith Dialogue Forum, the Bekasi Movement Against Apostasy, the local chapters of Muhammadiyah and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) – two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations – and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), well known for its aggressive opposition to Christians and other non-Muslim groups.

Government officials on Monday (June 28) called for the FPI to be declared a forbidden organization, claiming that FPI members were implicated in “too many” violent incidents.

“We are not concerned about their mission,” legislator Eva Kusuma Sundari reportedly said at a press conference in Jakarta, “but we are concerned about the way they implement their goals.”

A spokesman for another large organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said Tuesday (July 28) that despite one member being present at the congress in an unofficial capacity, NU had not approved the joint declaration, contradicting a statement made the previous day by Bekasi NU official Abul Mutholib Jaelani, who told The Jakarta Post that he had asked all 56 NU branches in the city to contribute at least 10 members to the youth army.


Contributing to Religious Conflict

Rapid residential and industrial development has created huge social problems in Bekasi. Sociologist Andi Sopandi of Bekasi Islamic University told The Jakarta Post that the call for sharia was a warning signal, and that local officials should urgently pursue dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders.

Locals and newcomers will get along well only if they share similar basic values, particularly religious ones, Sopandi reportedly said, pointing to sharp disputes over the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Jejalen Jaya sub-district earlier this year as an example.

A neighbor of the church confessed to The Jakarta Post that local clerics had asked him and other residents to sign a petition against constructing the HKBP church building and threatened not to pray at their funerals if they failed to cooperate; the majority of his neighbors signed the document under duress.

Under a 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB), at least 60 local residents must approve the establishment of a house of worship, whether a mosque or a church. The congregation must also have at least 90 members and obtain letters of recommendation from the local interfaith communication forum (FKUB) and religious affairs office before gaining final approval from district officials.

These terms make it virtually impossible for churches in Bekasi to obtain building permits. Bekasi regency has a population of 1.9 million, of which 98.2 percent are Muslim, according to 2006 data from the Bekasi Regency Religious Affairs office. Protestants, who form 0.67 percent (approximately 12,700 people) of the population, and Catholics who make up 0.55 percent, are served by only 16 officially recognized churches in seven of the 23 sub-districts.

Sudarno Soemodimedjo, deputy chief of the Bekasi FKUB, told The Jakarta Post in February that even if a church construction committee gained the approval of 60 local residents, the FKUB would not issue a letter of recommendation if there were any public objections.

“The SKB orders us to maintain public order, which means we have to refuse the establishment of a house of worship we believe may trigger a conflict in the future,” he said.

As a result, many Christians meet in unrecognized worship venues, giving Muslim groups legal grounds to oppose church gatherings.

“If the SKB was applied consistently, many mosques that were built without permits would have to close,” Timorason told Compass.

The government wants each new settlement to have a place of worship, he added, “but it’s always a mosque. There should be one of each to be fair.”

“Violations against freedom of religion remain rampant [in Indonesia],” confirmed the chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, who goes by the single name of Hendardi, at a press conference announcing the release of its January 2010 “Report on the Condition of Religious and Faith Freedom in Indonesia.”

“This is mostly because the government is half-hearted in its upholding of the right to worship,” he said.

Of 139 violations recorded by the institute last year, West Java took first place with 57 incidents, followed closely by Jakarta at 38.

Report from Compass Direct News

Moroccan Islamists Use Facebook to Target Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


National Christians Threatened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Congressional Hearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Afghan parliamentarian calls for execution of Christians

International Christian Concern (ICC) has told the ASSIST News Service (ANS) that it has learned that an Afghan parliamentary secretary has called for the public execution of Christian converts from the parliament floor, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

On Tuesday, the Associated Free Press reported that Abdul Sattar Khawasi, deputy secretary of the Afghan lower house in parliament, called for the execution of Christian converts from Islam.

Speaking in regards to a video broadcast by the Afghan television network Noorin TV showing footage of Christian men being baptized and praying in Farsi, Khawasi said, “Those Afghans that appeared in this video film should be executed in public. The house should order the attorney general and the NDS (intelligence agency) to arrest these Afghans and execute them.”

An ICC spokesperson said, “The broadcast triggered a protest by hundreds of Kabul University students on Monday, who shouted death threats and demanded the expulsion of Christian foreigners accused of proselytizing.

"As a result, the operations of Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and U.S.-based Church World Service (CWS) have been suspended over allegations of proselytizing. The Afghan government is currently undertaking an intensive investigation into the matter.

"According to Afghan law, proselytizing is illegal and conversion from Islam is punishable by death.”

ICC sources within Afghanistan have reported that many national Christians are in hiding, fearful of execution. Under government pressure during investigations, some Afghans have reportedly revealed names and locations of Christian converts.

Aidan Clay, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, “It is absolutely appalling that the execution of Christians would be promoted on the floor of the Afghan parliament. Khawasi’s statement sounded a whole lot like the tyrannical manifesto of the Taliban not that of a U.S. ally. American lives are being lost fighting terrorism and defending freedom in Afghanistan – yet Christians are being oppressed within Afghan borders.

“This comes after billions of U.S. dollars have been invested in the war effort, and millions more have been given in aid. The U.S. government must intervene to protect the religious freedoms and human rights of all Afghans. The U.S. is not a mere outside bystander – but, is closely intertwined within Afghan policy.”

Clay added, “Intervention is not a choice, but a responsibility, as Afghan policies reflect the U.S. government’s ability and commitment to secure a stable government in Afghanistan.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Second Wave of Deportations Hits Foreign Christians in Morocco

Muslim hardliners pressure government; nationals fears they may be next victim of ‘purging.’

ISTANBUL, May 21 (CDN) — In a second wave of deportations from Morocco, officials of the majority-Muslim country have expelled 26 foreign Christians in the last 10 days without due process.

Following the expulsion of more than 40 foreign Christians in March, the deportations were apparently the result of Muslim hardliners pressuring the nation’s royalty to show Islamic solidarity.

The latest deportations bring the number of Christians who have had to leave Morocco to about 105 since early March. Christians and expert observers are calling this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.

“I don’t see the end,” said Salim Sefiane, a Moroccan living abroad. “I see this as a ‘cleansing’ of Christians out of Morocco, and then I see this turning against the Moroccan church, which is already underground, and then persecution of Moroccan Christians, which is already taking place in recent days.”

At least two Moroccan Christians have been beaten in the last 10 days, sources told Compass, and police have brought other Moroccan Christians to police stations daily for psychologically “heavy” interrogations.

Authorities are enquiring about the activities of foreign and local Christians.

Forcibly Ejected

Legal sources said that according to Moroccan law, foreigners who have lived in the country for more than 10 years cannot be deported unless they are accused of a crime. They have the right to appeal the deportation order within 48 hours.

With only hours’ notice and forced escort to the country’s exit ports, almost none of the deportees were able to appeal their deportations.

“Most of these [deportations] are happening over the weekends, when the courts are closed,” Sefiane said. “Most of them are done in a way where they’re bringing them in [to the police station], intimidating them, and manhandling them out of the country. Many of them are not even going back to say goodbye to their wives, or even to pack a bag.”

With the exception of three foreigners, in none of the forced deportations did authorities produce an official deportation order, sources said. In many cases, Moroccan officials used embassies to notify foreigners that they were being deported. In most cases, foreigners were presented with a document in Arabic for them to sign that stated that they “understood” that they were being deported.

Compass learned of one case in which a foreigner was forced to the airport, and when he resisted he was forcibly drugged and sent to his native country.

“The expats in the country are very vulnerable, and the way it has happened has been against the laws of the country,” said a European Christian who was deported last week after nearly a decade of running his business in Morocco. “When I tried to walk away from the situation, I was physically stopped.”

The deported Christian said that authorities never informed any of the Christian foreigners of their rights, when in fact there are national laws protecting foreigners. 

“Basically they are trying to con everyone into leaving the country,” he said.

Deported foreigners have had to leave their families behind in Morocco, as well as their friends and communities. Many of the deportees were the male breadwinners of the family and have left their families behind as they try to decide their future.

“It’s devastating, because we have invested years of our lives into our community, business community and charity sectors,” said the European Christian. “People flooded to our house when they heard I was bundled into the back of a police car by the local authorities. It was like a death in the family – forcibly ejected from the country without being able to say goodbyes, just like that.”

The deportees have included Christians from North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, New Zealand and Korea.

“It’s come out of left field,” said the European. “No one really knows why this is happening.”

Internal Pressure

A regional legal expert said on condition of anonymity that a small number of extremist Muslims have undertaken a media campaign to “get [Christians’] good works out of the public eye and demonize Christians,” in order to expel them and turn the nation against local Christians – some of whom are third-generation followers of Jesus.

“There are too many eyes and ears to what they want to do to the native Christians,” said the expert. “They’re trying to get to them …They want to shut down the native Moroccan Christians.”

Deportation orders are coming from the Ministry of Interior, and speculation on the reason for the sudden spike in expulsions has centered on the arrival of a new, hard-line Muslim interior director in January.

Moroccan officials have cited “proselytism” as the reason for the deportations. Reuters news agency reported Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmed Toufiq as saying “proselytism” and “activism of some foreigners” had “undermined public order.”

On April 12 local media reported that 7,000 religious Muslim leaders signed 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.

Religious rights advocates point out that under Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the more than 100 foreigners who had lived in Morocco, some for decades, not only had the right to stay in the country but had contributed to the nation. 

“They expelled people who helped build up the country, trained people, educated Moroccan children, cared for orphans and widows, increased the GDP and trade,” said the regional legal expert. “These people they expelled weren’t even proselytizing under their own law. There’s an international standard, yet they changed the definition of the terminology and turned it into this horrible ‘religious terrorism.’”

One of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions, George Washington Academy in Casablanca, has come under fierce criticism from media and investigation by authorities.

“The biggest problem is the image the Ministry of Justice is pushing about who the Christian foreigners are,” said another observer on condition of anonymity. “All the articles have been extreme exaggerations of the manipulative aspect of what foreigners were doing, and especially when it comes to minors.”

Local Christians have reported to sources outside of Morocco that attitudes towards them, which used to be more tolerant, have also shifted as a result of the extremist-led campaign, and some are experiencing family and societal pressure and discrimination as well.

International Forces

While the deportations have perplexed the local Christian community, the regional legal expert said that in some ways this was calculated and inevitable.

He said that the Organization of the Islamic Conference had been putting pressure on countries across the Middle East and North Africa to remove their Christian elements. Iraq, with its decline in Christian population from a few million to a few hundred thousand over the last decade, is a case in point.

“Countries which have been more forward looking and spoken about rights, freedoms and equalities have been pressured to demonstrate their Muslim credentials, and the best way to do this is to sanitize [religious] minorities from the borders,” he said.

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, has called congressional hearings on June 17 to examine the human rights situation in Morocco in light of the expulsions. On Wednesday (May 19) Wolf called on the U.S. government to suspend $697.5 million in aid it has pledged to Morocco based on criteria that it is “ruling justly.”

“We’ve been told the Christians are a threat to the national security, so they are using terrorism laws against peace-loving Christians,” said the deported European Christian. “But it is massively backfiring.”

The Christian described how the Moroccan friends of Christian foreigners have been asking why they are being deported for their faith.

“They are being impacted by the reality of Christ through this, and it’s having more of an effect on the community than years and years of quietly demonstrating Christ peacefully and lawfully,” he said. “By breaking their own laws, they have opened the lid on the reality of the life of Christ.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Morocco Begins Large-Scale Expulsion of Foreign Christians

Ongoing purge launched nationwide to stop ‘proselytization.’

ISTANBUL, March 12 (CDN) — Moroccan authorities deported more than 40 foreign Christian aid workers this week in an ongoing, nationwide crackdown that included the expulsion of foster parents caring for 33 Moroccan orphans. 

Deportations of foreign Christians continued at press time, with Moroccan authorities expressing their intention to deport specifically U.S. nationals. Sources in Morocco told Compass that the government gave the U.S. Embassy in Rabat a list of 40 citizens to be deported.

The U.S. Embassy in Rabat could not comment on the existence of such a list, but spokesperson David Ranz confirmed that the Moroccan government plans to deport more U.S. citizens for alleged “proselytizing.”

“We have been informed by the Moroccan government that it does intend to expel more American citizens,” said embassy spokesperson David Ranz.

Citing Western diplomats and aid groups, Reuters reported that as many as 70 foreign aid workers had been deported since the beginning of the month, including U.S., Dutch, British and New Zealand citizens.

At the Village of Hope orphanage near Ain Leuh, 50 miles south of Fez, the government on Monday (March 8) expelled 16 staff workers, 10 foster parents and 13 natural-born dependents from the country. The orphanage arranges for orphaned children to live with a set of foster parents rather than in a traditional dormitory setting, according to its website.

Police first came to the orphanage Saturday afternoon (March 6), questioning children and looking for Bibles and evidence of Christian evangelism; by late Sunday night they had told all foster parents and staff that they had to leave on Monday.

New Zealand native Chris Broadbent, a worker at Village of Hope, told Compass that the separation of the foster families and the children under their care was traumatic. As much as they hoped to be re-united, he said, that did not seem likely – officials told them they could visit as tourists in the future, but in reality authorities do not allow re-entry for those who have been expelled.

“At this stage, as much as we want to see the parents get back with their kids, we understand that may be almost impossible,” Broadbent said. “We’re not searching for scalps here, we don’t want to harm Morocco or anything like that, but we want to see the parents re-united with their children.”

Broadbent emphasized that government accusations that they had been proselytizing were unfounded, and that all staff had signed and adhered to a non-proselytizing policy.

“We were a legal institution,” he said. “Right from the start they knew that it was an organization founded by Christians and run by a mixture of Christians and Muslim people working together.”

Authorities told orphanage officials that they were being deported due to proselytizing but gave no evidence or explanation of who, when, where or how that was supposed to have occurred, according to a Village of Hope statement.

The orphanage had been operating for 10 years. Moroccan authorities had never before raised any charges about the care of the children, according to Village of Hope’s website.

In the village of Azrou, about 100 miles east of Rabat, another orphanage called Children’s Haven has been under investigation this week. Although it was still operating at press time, sources said its 20 staff members were prepared for a fate similar to that of Village of Hope, 30 minutes south.

“This action against the Village of Hope was part of a nationwide crackdown against Christians living in Morocco,” read a statement on Village of Hope’s website.

Some Christians in Morocco attribute the change in the country, generally known for its tolerance towards religious minorities, to the appointments of Mohammed Naciri as Minister of Justice and Taieb Cherkaoui as Minister of Interior in January.

Communications Minister Khalid Naciri said the government would be “severe with all those who play with religious values,” reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Local Christians Next?

A Moroccan pastor, his wife and a relative were arrested on Wednesday [March 10] and released on the next day, raising fears among local Christians that the wave of intolerance may spread to the country’s small but growing church of nearly 1,000 believers.

An expert on religious freedom in the Middle East who requested anonymity said that attacks on the church are inevitable even in a Western-looking, modern country like Morocco, as the church grows and becomes more visible.

“Because conversion is a taboo, if the government looks like it is doing nothing in regard to all the foreign missionaries that are coming and ‘corrupting’ the country and its ‘national soul,’ it gives credit to Islamists who could challenge the ‘Islam-ness’ of the Royal Family and the government, and that’s just what Morocco can’t afford,” said the expert.

The clampdown on foreign workers could signal government malaise toward the growing church.

“The more they grow, the more visible they become, the more they’ll attract this reaction,” said the expert. “And that’s why they’ve been so quiet with house groups. It’s just a matter of time.”

Communications Minister Naciri reportedly denied the new, tougher line against non-Muslims was a step backward in terms of religious freedom in Morocco.

“Morocco has always been and remains a land of openness and tolerance,” he told AFP. “The rare cases of expulsion have nothing to do with the practice of Christianity but with acts of proselytism.”

The children have reportedly been placed in a care home.

Contradictory Documents

As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Morocco’s accusations of “proselytization” by foreign aid workers apparently contradict its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Previously the North African country had a history of religious tolerance. Morocco’s constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, contradicting Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.

In its 2009 international religious freedom report, the U.S. Department of State noted that on April 2, 2009, a Moroccan government spokesman asserted that freedom of religion does not include freedom to choose one’s faith.

“The fight against Christian proselytizing in accordance with law cannot be considered among human rights abuses,” the Moroccan government spokesman said, “for it is an action aimed at preventing attempts to undermine the country’s immutable religious values. The freedom of belief does not mean conversion to another religion.”

The crackdown this month appears unprecedented, with only smaller groups previously deported. In March 2009, Moroccan authorities expelled five foreign female Christians for trying to “proselytize” although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians. In November 2009, police raided a Christian meeting in northern Morocco and expelled five foreigners.

Last month a large, military-led team of Moroccan authorities raided a Bible study in a small city southeast of Marrakech, arresting 18 Moroccans and deporting a U.S. citizen.

In a message yesterday to U.S. citizens registered with the embassy, U.S. Ambassador Samuel Kaplan reportedly expressed concern about how the authorities conducted the deportations. Foreign Christians were told their residence permits were cancelled and that they had to leave the country immediately; they had no rights to appeal or challenge the decision.

“We were disheartened and distressed to learn of the recent expulsion by the Moroccan government of a number of foreigners, including numerous Americans, who had been legally residing in Morocco,” Kaplan said in a statement. “Although we expect all American citizens to respect Moroccan law, we hope to see significant improvements in the application of due process in this sort of case.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Iranian Pastor Tortured, Threatened for ‘Converting Muslims’

Arrest, imprisonment appear to be part of larger crackdown in Isfahan.

ISTANBUL, March 8 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” is being tortured in prison and threatened with execution, sources close to the case said.

State Security agents on Feb. 2 arrested the Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. A city of more than 1.5 million people, Isfahan is located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran.

According to Farsi Christian News Network, Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, recently visited her husband in prison, where she saw that he had obvious signs of torture and was in poor condition. Iranian intelligence officials told Nazanin that her husband might be executed for his alleged activities.

Issavi is the pastor of The Evangelical Church of Kermanshah in Isfahan, a 50-year-old church body affiliated with The Assemblies of God that caters to the local Assyrian population.

During the raid, State Security police detained everyone in the house, later releasing all but Issavi and the owner of the home. Security officials also seized personal property from the home. Typically in Christian arrests in Iran, security officials confiscate all documents, media materials, computers, and personal documentation.

Issavi is being held in an unmarked prison, according to FCNN.

Last month’s arrest seems to be part of an anti-Christian sweep that is taking place across Isfahan. In addition to the politically motivated detentions and executions that have taken place after June’s contested election and subsequent nation-wide political protests, it appears authorities are rounding up Christian leaders.

More Arrests

On Feb. 28, Isfahan residents Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.

Aghajary was at home with a group of other Christians when police came for her and her husband, who was not at home, according to Middle East Concern, a group that assists persecuted Christians. Police handcuffed Aghajary and, upon finding boxes of Bibles, began beating her.

The assault continued until eventually Aghajary was pepper-sprayed and removed from the scene. Her husband Shafiee was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house.

Their fate and whereabouts are still unknown.

Authorities assaulted another Christian visiting the house at the time of the raid when he protested the police action. Other Christians at the house were threatened, but no one else was arrested. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.

One regional analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Iranian government is set on crushing religious freedom within the country.

“The recent spate of church leader arrests provides clear evidence of the Iranian authorities’ desperate determination to strangle the growing church movement, along with all other forms of perceived political dissent,” he said.

February’s arrest was not the first time Shafiee has had run-ins with Iranian authorities. He has routinely been ordered to appear before police for questioning and then released. This arrest, however, was different. When family members contacted police on March 1, they were told that the couple’s case was under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Court and were turned away with no other information.

While the couple is imprisoned, family members are caring for their two teenage boys.

Frequent Harassment

Like Shafiee, Issavi has been harassed frequently by the Isfahan branch of the State Security police. He has been ordered to appear before the police many times, then arrested and interrogated. In addition, police have threatened members of his family and have broken into his house and taken items such as his computer.

On Jan. 2, 2010, police sealed the Kermanshah church and ordered Issavi not to reopen it. The church continued to have house meetings, and authorities charged Issavi with not cooperating with the government.

The Assyrians were one of the first ethnic groups in the Middle East to adopt Christianity. The existence of the Assyrian Christian community in Iran predates the existence of their Islamic counterparts by several hundred years. There are 10,000 to 20,000 Assyrian Christians living in Iran, according to unofficial estimates cited in the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State. The total Christian population is 300,000 nationwide, according to the United Nations. Most of those Christians are ethnic Armenians.

Isfahan has been the site of some of the worst religious persecution in Iran. On July 30, 2008, Abbas Amiri, a Christian man in his 60s, died in a hospital after being beaten by Isfahan security police. Authorities had arrested Amiri along with seven other men, six women and two minors during a July 17 raid on a house meeting. Four days after her husband died, Sakineh Rahnama succumbed to her injuries and a stress-related heart attack. Later, officials wouldn’t allow local Christians to hold a memorial service.

Iran, where Shia Islam is the official state religion, is known to be one of the worst countries for repression against Christians. The U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern every year since 1999 for its persecution of non-Shia Muslims, among others.

Last year, according to the International Religious Freedom Report, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities continued to get “significantly worse.” The state department placed the blame for this squarely at the feet of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s conservative media, who “intensified a campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities, and political and religious leaders” by issuing a continual stream of inflammatory statements.

“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”

Evangelical Christians were required to carry church membership cards and provide photocopies to authorities, according to the report.

“Worshippers were subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers,” it states. “The government restricted meetings for evangelical services to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members.”

Report from Compass Direct News