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

Massive ‘Reconversion’ Event in India Aimed at Christians

Hard-line cleric leads campaign in Maharashtra, ideological capital of Hindu nationalism.

MUMBAI, India, October 27 (CDN) — Hundreds of tribal Christians and adherents of aboriginal religion from villages in Maharashtra state were reportedly “reconverted” to Hinduism yesterday in the Mumbai suburb of Thane at a ceremony led by a Hindu nationalist cleric.

Swami Narendra Maharaj’s goal was to “reconvert” 6,000 Christians in the so-called purification ceremony, reported The Hindustan Times, which put the number of “reconversions” at around 800. Hindu nationalists believe all Indians are born Hindu and therefore regard acceptance of Hinduism by those practicing other religions as “reconversion.”

Maharaj, a Hindu cleric known for opposing proclamation of Christ, has allegedly led anti-Christian attacks in tribal regions. On March 15, 2008, his men reportedly attacked two Catholic nuns, Sister Marceline and Sister Philomena, from the non-profit Jeevan Jyoti Kendra (Light of Life Center) in Sahanughati, near Mumbai.

The attack took place in a camp to educate tribal women on HIV/AIDS, which also provided information on government welfare programs, according to Indo-Asian News Service. The assault in Sahanughati, Alibaug district was followed by a mass “reconversion” ceremony in the area on April 27, 2008, said Ram Puniyani, a well-known civil rights activist in Mumbai.

Rightwing Hindu groups are mostly active in tribal areas. Hindu nationalists attack Christians in tribal areas because they provide social and development services, regarded as competition by rightwing Hindus seeking to woo tribal voters, said Anwar Rajan, secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Maharashtra’s Pune city.

Kandhamal district in the eastern state of Orissa, where a massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in August-September 2008, is also a tribal-majority area. At least 100 Christians were killed, 4,600 houses and churches were burned, and over 50,000 people were rendered homeless in the violence.

Sociologists maintain that India’s tribal peoples are not Hindus but practice their own ethnic faiths. Hindu nationalists run Ekal Vidyalayas (one-teacher schools) in tribal regions to “Hinduize” local villagers and repel conversions to other faiths. These schools are operating in over 27,000 villages of India.

Dubious Claims

An anonymous spokesman of Maharaj said the plan for yesterday’s event was to “reconvert” 6,000 Christians to achieve the larger goal of “bringing back” 100,000 Christians, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency.

The rightwing spokesman in Maharashtra, a western state where Hindu nationalism originated decades ago, claimed that Maharaj and his followers had overseen the conversion of more than 94,000 Christians “back to their original faith” and plan to complete the target of 100,000 in the next two years.

Maharaj, whose followers call him Jagat Guru (Guru of the World), told PTI that those who “reconverted” were not coerced.

“We are not having a religious conversion here – it’s a process of purification,” Maharaj was quoted as saying. “We taught them the precepts of the Hindu religion, and they decided to convert to Hinduism on their own after repentance. They were not forced.”

Many reports of “reconversions,” however, have been found to be false.

In 2007, Hindi-language daily Punjab Kesari reported that four Christian families in Nahan town, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, had “reconverted” to Hinduism. But a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council revealed that none of the members of those families had ever converted to Christianity.

The Hindustan Times reported yesterday’s ceremony included rituals involving cow’s milk, seeking forgiveness from ancestors, installation of idols of the Hindu gods Ganesh and Vishnu, and an offering ritual performed by priests from Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.

Home of Hindu Nationalism

The basic philosophy of Hindu nationalism was expounded by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, popularly known as Veer Savarkar, in 1923 through the publishing of a pamphlet, “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” Savarkar, who is from Maharashtra, argued that only those who have their ancestors from India as well as consider India as their holy land should have full citizenship rights.

A follower of Savarkar, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, also from Maharashtra, further developed the Hindu nationalist philosophy through a book, “A Bunch of Thoughts,” in 1966. He claimed superiority of Hinduism over other religions and cultures of the world.

“In this land, Hindus have been the owners, Parsis and Jews the guests, and Muslims and Christians the dacoits [bandits],” he said.

The emergence of Hindu nationalist ideology from Maharashtra came in reaction to the politics of social justice by Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Mahatma (Jyotirao) Phule, said Irfan Engineer, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Mumbai and an expert on religious conflicts. Phule led a mass movement of emancipation of lower castes, mainly Shudras and Ati-Shudras or Dalits, in the 1870s. Ambedkar, known as the architect of the Indian Constitution, began movements against “untouchability” in the 1920s.

Also born in Maharashtra was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, or RSS), India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate. It was founded in 1925 in Nagpur by Dr. K.B. Hedgewar.

Hindu society has traditionally had four castes or social classes, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. While Shudras belong to the lowest caste, Dalits were formerly known as “untouchables” because the priestly Brahmin class considered them to be outside the confines of the caste system.

During British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947, sections of the Brahmins felt the British were sympathetic towards the Dalit reformist movement, said Engineer of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Mahars, Maharashtra’s largest Dalit people group, have been very organized and powerful since then.

The PUCL’s Rajan said that the Brahmins have long portrayed minorities as enemies of Hinduism.

“Since the Dalit reformist movement is essentially against the Brahmin hegemony, the Brahmins had to react and get organized,” Rajan said. “As a part of their strategy to weaken the reformist movement, Brahmins projected minorities as the ‘real’ enemies of all Hindus, including Dalits and other lower castes, diverting attention away from the atrocities they meted out on them.”

Most of the founding leaders of Hindu nationalism, including Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar, were Brahmins. Since communal troubles benefited Hindu nationalists politically, the use of divisive issues became routine for them, Rajan added.

After two successive defeats of the Bharatiya Janata Party, political wing of the RSS, in general elections in 2004 and 2009, differences between the moderate and extremist sections within the Hindu nationalist movement – which blame each other for the party’s downfall – have deepened to unprecedented levels.

In frustration, the extremists have accelerated their activities, especially in Maharashtra, the ideological capital, said Dr. Suresh Khairnar, a well-known civil activist from Nagpur.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Two women whose houses were burned die from illnesses in hospital.

NEW DELHI, October 20 (Compass Direct News) – A paramilitary soldier assigned to protect Christians from Hindu violence in Kandhamal district, Orissa was mutilated and killed by a mob in Sisapanga village on Oct. 13.

The body of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldier was recovered from a nearby forest. He was believed to have been hacked to death by tribal people in the wake of the worst anti-Christian violence in the history of modern India.

“Police recovered the body on Monday night – he has injuries on his torso and head,” District Superintendent of Police S. Praveen Kumar told national media. “It appears he was first beaten up by sticks and then killed by a sharp weapon.” Sisapanga village is under Raikia police jurisdiction.

“The soldier had been to Sisapanga village, accompanied by a driver, to buy provisions. A group of six-seven men attacked him from behind, dragged him into the jungle and hacked him to death,” Kumar told the Times of India (TOI). “The driver fortunately managed to escape.”

The death marks the first time that central security personnel have been targeted in Orissa in the riots that have raged since Hindu extremists insisted on blaming Christians for the Aug. 23 murder of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati, even though Maoists admitted killing him and four associates.

“The murder of the CRPF jawan [soldier] comes in the wake of persistent demands from the tribals to withdraw the paramilitary force,” a police spokesman told TOI. “The CRPF has made mass arrests, mostly of tribals, during the past two weeks.”

A local source who wished to be unnamed told Compass that the attackers have warned authorities through local media that they will carry out more killings of CRPF soldiers if the forces are not withdrawn.


Assurances, Assurances

Amid several assurances of protection by the state government, a mob demolished a Church of North India building on Oct. 11 in Sikuli village, Kalahandi district. The same day, the gang burned down two Christian houses in the village.

Two women who previously were driven from their homes when Hindu extremists set the structures on fire have died from illnesses. Minakshi Pradhan, 22, contracted malaria after fleeing to a refugee camp, later developing typhoid, and was admitted to MKCG Berhampur hospital, where she died on Thursday (Oct. 16).

“She has a 4-year-old child she left behind,” said a local source who wished to remain unnamed. Also survived by her husband, Anand Pradhan, Minakshi Pradhan was from Murudipanga village, Raikia block division, in Kandhmal district.

Another woman, Mili Pradhan, had a tumor detected in her stomach after her house was burned on Aug. 29, and she and husband Joshi Pradhan had to flee to Berhampur. Doctors operating on her detected blood cancer, and she died in the same hospital on Wednesday (Oct. 15.) She left behind an 18-month-old daughter.

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said in an interview to television channel NDTV that half of the 1,000-odd people arrested in the state for rioting belonged to the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). He added that he considered the Bajrang Dal a fundamentalist group.

In reaction, Subash Chouhan, national co-coordinator of the Bajrang Dal, said “It’s not the Bajrang Dal but Naveen Patnaik who is the real fundamentalist. . . . He is trying to show his secular character by trying to implement the Christian organizations’ agenda.”

Orissa police have arrested one of the “most wanted” in the anti-Christian riots in the state’s Kandhmal district.

Manoj Pradhan, a key tribal leader, was reportedly arrested at a lodge in Berhampur on Wednesday (Oct. 15) night.

“While investigating the case, we are finding it to be one of the most complicated cases in the state,” Arun Ray, inspector general of police, told media. “The crime was planned much before. We have identified the perpetrators of the crime. We have arrested three people and are likely to arrest some more people in the near future.”


Raped Nun

In the rape of a nun shortly after the violence began, police have arrested Mitu Patnaik and also implicated Muna Ghadei and Saroj Ghadei. They were arrested at a mill in Kerala’s Palakkad district on Oct. 11.

Police had earlier arrested five men – Juria Pradhan, Kartik Pradhan, Biren Kumar Sahu and Tapas Kumar Patnaik on Oct. 3 and Santosh Pradhan on Oct. 7 for their alleged roles in the crime.

Orissa police sent Patnaik to Cuttack for DNA testing. The alleged rape of the 29-year-old woman took place at the building of a Non-Governmental Organization in Kanjamendi village in Kandhamal on Aug. 25.

The nun has refused to come forward to identify any of the suspects, though inspector general Ray told media they were hopeful of making their case.

“The nun must be very scared and disturbed,” he said. “If necessary, the trial of the case can be held in any other place in Orissa.”

The nun has expressed her disbelief by saying that she would not like to “meet” the state police that remained a mute witness of her predicament.

“The nun wrote from a hospital, as she is yet to recover from the shock,” Archbishop Raphael Cheenath reportedly said.

At the same time, Hindu radicals want to reintroduce a tribal law that would obligate a rape victim to marry the man who rapes her.

On Oct. 13, some 5,000 radical Hindu women demonstrated in K. Nuagaon demanding that “the victim marry her rapist in accordance with local tradition.”


Refugee Camp Conditions

“With around 3,000 people in one camp, public health is pathetic in refugee camps,” attorney B. D. Das told Compass. “There is an epidemic of malaria, and water-borne diseases are spreading rapidly.”

One local source told Compass, that excess people in the refugee camps are forced to go back to their homes.

“As their homes are burnt, a plastic tent along with 10 days ration (food supply) is given to them and they are sent away,” he said. “Those in the relief camps are still better off as they at least have food. Those sent back do not have income, shelter and food.”

Christian leaders are concerned with the unhygienic conditions of the camps and people dying due to inadequate facilities.

Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council, told Compass that the chief minister of Orissa admitted that at least 10,000 people are still in government-run refugee camps, and that tens of thousands are in the forests or have migrated to towns outside Kandhamal.

“The government has admitted 40 dead, though we have details of 59 men and women mercilessly killed in the seven weeks of unabated mayhem,” he said. “For us, peace would be when the last refugee is back in his home, secure in his faith, with a livelihood restored, his children’s future secured as it should be in a secular India.”


Forced Reconversions

On Oct. 12 a student association, the Kandhamal Chatra Sangharsa Samiti, called for a moratorium on conversions by Christians to honor Saraswati’s lifetime of work trying to halt Christian conversions.

Christians have been forced to reconvert to Hinduism, burn Bibles and prayer books, have their heads shaved and drink cow urine (for Hindu purification). They have been placed for days under the watchful eye of Hindu groups so that they do not have any contacts with their former co-religionists.

Attorney Das noted, “700 forcible reconversions have taken place in Kandhmal since the riots began.”

Hindu extremist groups denied ever having attempted to “reconvert” tribal people, many of whom were not Hindus in the first place. “Why should we do it?” Subhash Chouhan, national co-convenor of Bajrang Dal said to the Times of India. “The Christian churches and missionaries have let them down, and the natives are making a conscious choice to become Hindus. We don’t have a single office in Kandhamal.”

Dr. Dayal told Compass that he has been distressed that while the continuing anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, Orissa, Karnataka was forcefully detailed by Christians as well as by leaders of leftist parties, and human rights activists, “there was no assurance forthcoming as to when the more than 50,000 internally displaced persons, refugees in their homeland, can return home without being forced at gunpoint by the Bajrang Dal to become Hindus.”

Report from Compass Direct News