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

Evangelical archeologists skeptical about ‘Joseph coins’

Two evangelical archeologists have expressed caution in evaluating reports that ancient Egyptian coins bearing the name and image of the biblical Joseph have been discovered among unsorted artifacts at the Museum of Egypt, reports Baptist Press.

“The scholarly community will need to see the full report and images of the artifacts to make a judgment in regard to the interpretation of these objects as coins,” Steven Ortiz, associate professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said.

“It is more likely that these are amulets or jewelry. The initial reports are probably based on an initial zeal to support the koranic verses that mention coins associated with Joseph rather than a comprehensive study of the finds,” Ortiz told Baptist Press.

Al Ahram newspaper in Cairo first carried a report about the artifacts, and a subsequent report appeared in The Jerusalem Post Sept. 25, based on a translation of the original article completed by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The research has not appeared in a scholarly journal.

The Post said the significance of the find is that archeologists have located “scientific evidence countering the claim held by some historians that coins were not used for trade in ancient Egypt, and that this was done through barter instead.”

MEMRI’s translation said the artifacts initially were believed to be charms, but a thorough examination revealed that the objects bore the year in which they were minted as well as their value.

“Some of the coins are from the time when Joseph lived in Egypt, and bear his name and portrait,” the report said. “… This [find] prompted researchers to seek and find Koranic verses that speak of coins used in ancient Egypt.”

Robert Griffin, an ancient Egyptian history scholar at the University of Memphis, noted that he couldn’t make an assessment without seeing the artifacts or scholarly reports, so he wasn’t ready to accept the discovery as it is being promoted.

“My initial response is one of skepticism in that the ‘interpretation’ of the coins is quite subjective,” Griffin told BP.

The Al Ahram article said the coins are from many different periods, “including coins that bore special markings identifying them as being from the era of Joseph. Among these, there was one coin that had an inscription on it, and an image of a cow symbolizing Pharaoh’s dream about the seven fat cows and seven lean cows ….”

“It’s a bit of a stretch, to say the least,” Griffin said, “especially when you consider that one of the most prominent goddesses in Egyptian mythology is Hathor, who is represented as a cow or a woman with cow’s horns as part of her crown.”

Hathor was popular in the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period, circa 1800-1600 B.C., which corresponds with the general time period of Joseph, Griffin said.

Also, Al Ahram said Joseph’s name appears twice on that particular coin, written in hieroglyphics, “once the original name, Joseph, and once his Egyptian name, Saba Sabani, which was given to him by Pharaoh when he became treasurer.”

“I would be interested to see the actual writing of what the researcher claims are the names of Joseph,” Griffin said. “The English transliteration he gives for the ‘Egyptian name’ of Joseph is close in form but not exactly as it would be transliterated from the Hebrew text.”

Based on what he knows at this point, Griffin said he would hesitate to say the artifacts are definitive proof of the existence of Joseph in Egypt.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Sodom found? The quest for the lost city of destruction – Part 3

By Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service

Tall el-Hammam sits in the northeast quadrant of the Dead Sea, in an area known as the Kikkar, or the “disc of Jordan.” It is an area lush with farmland, water, and natural beauty.

Geographically, it is east of Jericho, at about the same level above the sea. To this day, it is one of the most important agricultural areas of Jordan, providing many fruit and vegetable crops for Jordan and for export.

As amazing as it may sound, Tall el-Hammam may also be the location of the ancient city of Sodom.

According to archeologist, Dr. Steven Collins, this site fits perfectly with the geographical profile outlined in Genesis 13-19.

How Dr. Collins arrived at this conclusion involves years of research, digs, and textual research with many colleagues, including Dr. Peter Briggs. Drs. Collins and Briggs developed a means to determine if an ancient text is a “true narrative” through a scientific methodology called “criterial screening.”

The finding? Genesis is reliable for geographical profiles, and therefore can be used to locate sites.

With this bit of knowledge, Dr. Collins set out on a course of discovery.

“When I first had the idea that the traditional site of Sodom (in the southern region of the Dead Sea) was wrong (based upon the geographical indicators), I began to think through the text, coming to conclusion that it was northeast of the Dead Sea.”

After a 250-page research paper, hours of research—in the U.S., Israel, and Jordan— Collins concluded that the site of Tall el-Hammam was the ��?one.’

“I came to this conclusion based upon its geographical location and the biblical text. In the Bible, Sodom was mentioned first in order; therefore it must have been the largest and most prominent city in the area. We find that Scripture usually orders cities by prominence and size. With that bit of knowledge we choose the largest site.”

“As a matter of fact,” Collins continued, “Tall el-Hammam was the largest site by a huge margin.”

Under the auspice of the current dig, Tall el-Hammam’s general area is 40 hectares (roughly 100 acres), which is huge by ancient Bronze Age standards.

With the current dig well under way, the findings have been staggering.

“Not only do we have the right place geographically speaking, but it falls within the right time frame (the Bronze Age), and it was destroyed during the time of Abraham (the Middle Bronze Age). When you add in the pottery, architecture (it was a fortified city), and the chronological consistency of the region to the biblical text, it is a match made in heaven, so to speak,” Collins beams as he shares this with me.

“To make it even more intriguing,” he continues, “there is great mystery concerning this site, and all of its associated sites. For some reason there is what I call a “historical hole or LB Gap” regarding the site. Meaning, after this cluster of towns was destroyed during Abraham’s time, the area was not re-occupied until much, much later; later than the sites in the regions surrounding this particular cluster.”

“It must have been seen as a taboo site of some kind. Something terrible must have happened there that caused people to stay away for so many centuries.”

I then ask Dr. Collins for some evidence.

“Well, to start with, the Tall el-Hammam site has 25 geographical indicators that align it with the description in Genesis. Compare this with something well known—like Jerusalem—that has only 16. Other sites have only 5 or 6. So, this site has many times more indicators than any other Old Testament site. That is truly amazing.”

“Second, our findings—pottery, architecture, and destruction layers—fit the timeframe profile. Meaning, we should expect to find items, like what we are finding, from the Middle Bronze period. This is exactly what we are uncovering.”

“Lastly, we have secured internationally recognized experts to review our findings. One such person is Dr. Robert Mullins, and then there are our colleagues from the Department of Antiquities in Jordan. Dr. Mullins is an expert in Bronze Age pottery, and there are many others as well. My ceramic expertise also covers the Bronze Age. Their conclusions on the matter reflect that our findings are correct. Once again, this is incredible.”

“Though we are still digging and uncovering a plethora of material and artifacts, and much research still needs to be conducted, I feel that the evidence for this being the ancient city of Sodom is increasing by the day.”

“As a matter of fact, even some critics of the Bible are giving this site some attention. There is a host of web activity—both scholarly and downright weird—that has been spawned from this discovery. It is a wonderful time to be in archeology! I must confess that I am both humbled and excited to be a part of something as significant as this.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Sodom found? The quest for the lost city of destruction – Part 2

By Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service

Dr. Steven Collins, the unassuming archeologist from New Mexico, was at a crossroad. The site he was helping to excavate in the West Bank (Ai) from 1995-2000 closed down due to warfare and political maneuvering in the region. Steve, and project director Bryant Wood, had to close up shop.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he told me in a recent interview. “For the past five years, my life had been consumed by this dig. Then it was gone. I was dumbfounded.”

But this closed door proved to be an opening for something more amazing.

“It was then that I decided to conduct some research on a thought I had in 1996. During an archeology tour, I found that the traditional site for Sodom (known as the “Southern Theory”) didn’t match the geographical profile as described in Genesis 13-19.”

“As I began to research it more, and read through Genesis 13-19 several times, I had a thought that I had to pursue: they have the wrong location.”

“Many think Sodom is in the South (modeled after the famous archeologist, William F. Albright’s views), but the text seems to indicate that the site is in the Northeast,” he continued.

As “Indiana Jones” as Steve’s thoughts were, the conclusions and findings could be even more monumental than any blockbuster movie.

Essentially, Steve took the literal text of Genesis 13-19 and created a theoretical map, using the research methodology of Dr. Peter Briggs. This “map” utilizes a scientific approach to determine the validity of ancient texts. The conclusion? The texts in Genesis are reliable geographical indicators.

Working with Briggs, Collins developed a theory that the location was not in the Southern region, but in the Northeast.

From there, Dr. Collins began to flesh out his thoughts in a formal paper. This 250-page research paper was highlighted at the Near-Eastern Society Conference.

In his research, Collins focused in on five key areas: the geographical indicators, the chronological indicators, the terms of the destruction, the architecture and pottery, and the facts themselves.

“What I didn’t want to do,” he said, “was trample down the well-worn theories of past commentators and scholars. Basically, I wanted the text to speak for itself.”

“At the NES meeting, I received favorable comments from men of whom I have the utmost respect. I knew we were on to something quite thrilling.”

The one thing left to do was further research and the beginning of a dig.

“So my wife, a couple of students from Trinity Southwest University, and I headed off to Jordan to do research. We were in Jordan by 2002.”

“When I was doing research in the U.S., many of the maps and books were conspicuously absent of any detailed information regarding the north eastern region of the Dead Sea. Sadly, many of the scholars had ignored the text in Genesis.”

In Jordan, Collins found a host of helpful material.

“While in Jordan I found many maps, books, and archeological information at the American Center for Oriental Research library. In particular, a book by the journalist Rami Khouri, gave me the foundation I needed to get started.”

“Though this book was a popular work, it quoted from—and made reference to—many scholarly works. From that point on, we used Khouri’s book as a guide to the Jordanian literature on the sites north of the Dead Sea . We spent hours copying as much material as we could.”

“What we discovered seemed to coincide with our findings: Sodom was not in the south, it was northeast of the Dead Sea.”

“We were able to locate some information from one of the last major digs that occurred in the area. We also paid close attention to a 1975/1976 survey of the Jordan Valley. This survey stated that the area of our interest had many ancient sites.”

“So we headed off to the area northeast of the Dead Sea and began to look around. What we found amazed us. There were at least ten sites that could possibly be ancient Sodom.”

“Sodom is mentioned first in the Bible—consistently—thereby giving it prominence as the largest city in that area. So based upon the text and our previous research we chose the largest site. And let me tell you, this find at Tel-al-Hammam turned out to be much greater than we ever hoped for.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph