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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


‘Threatening’ Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Empowering Vigilantes

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

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

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

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

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


Key Election Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News