Anti-Christian Sentiment Marks Journey for Bhutan’s Exiles

Forced from Buddhist homeland, dangers arise in Hindu-majority Nepal.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 23 (CDN) — Thrust from their homes in Bhutan after Buddhist rulers embarked on an ethnic and religious purge, Christian refugees in Nepal face hostilities from Hindus and others.

In Sunsari district in southeastern Nepal, a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, residents from the uneducated segments of society are especially apt to attack Christians, said Purna Kumal, district coordinator for Awana Clubs International, which runs 41 clubs in refugee camps to educate girls about the Bible.

“In Itahari, Christians face serious trouble during burials,” Kumal told Compass. “Last month, a burial party was attacked by locals who dug up the grave and desecrated it.”

Earlier this month, he added, a family in the area expelled one of its members from their home because he became a Christian.

Bhutan began expelling almost one-eighth of its citizens for being of Nepali origin or practicing faiths other than Buddhism in the 1980s. The purge lasted into the 1990s.

“Christians, like Hindus and others, were told to leave either their faith or the country,” said Gopi Chandra Silwal, who pastors a tiny church for Bhutanese refugees in a refugee camp in Sanischare, a small village in eastern Nepal’s Morang district. “Many chose to leave their homeland.”

Persecution in Bhutan led to the spread of Christianity in refugee camps in Nepal. Though exact figures are not available, refugee Simon Gazmer estimates there are about 7,000-8,000 Christians in the camps – out of a total refugee population of about 85,000 – with many others having left for other countries. There are 18 churches of various faiths in the camps, he said.

“Faith-healing was an important factor in the spread of Christianity in the camps,” said Gazmer, who belongs to Believers’ Church and is awaiting his turn to follow five members of his family to Queensland, Australia. “A second reason is the high density in the camps.”

Each refugee family lives in a single-room hut, with one outdoor toilet for every two families. The Nepalese government forbids them to work for fear it will create unemployment for local residents.

Life was even harder for them before 2006, when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom where conversions were a punishable offence.

“When I began preaching in 2000, I had to do it secretly,” said Pastor Silwal of Morang district. “We could meet only surreptitiously in small groups. I used my hut as a make-shift church while many other groups were forced to rent out rooms outside the camp.”

A fact-finding mission in 2004 by Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers found that police pulled down a church structure built by Pentecostal Christians in the Beldangi camp by orders of Nepal’s home ministry. The rights group also reported that Hindu refugees ostracized the Christians, who had proceeded to rent a room outside the camp to meet three times a week for worship services and Bible study.

When the Jesus Loves Gospel Ministries (JLGM) organization sent officials from India to the Pathri camp in Morang in 2006, they found that local residents resentful of the refugees had taken note of a baptism service at a pond in a nearby jungle.

“In August, we were planning another baptism program,” JLGM director Robert Singh reported. “But the villagers put deadly poisonous chemicals in the water … Some of the young people went to take a bath ahead of our next baptism program. They found some fish floating on the water and, being very hungry – the refugees only get a very small ration, barely enough to survive on – they took some of the fish and ate them. Three of them died instantly.”

Singh also stated that poisoned sweets were left on the premises of the refugee school in the camp. They were discovered in time to avert another tragedy.

Life for Christian refugees improved after Nepal saw a pro-democracy movement in 2006 that caused the army-backed government of Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to collapse. The king was forced to reinstate parliament, and lawmakers sought to curb his powers by declaring Nepal a secular state.

Though Christian refugees are now allowed to run churches openly in the camps, ill will toward them has yet to end. When Pastor Silwal asked camp authorities to allow him to open a church in 2006, Hindu neighbors protested, saying it would cause disturbances. Camp authorities allowed him to open a tiny church in a separate room on the condition that its activities would not disturb neighbors.

Earlier in his life in Bhutan, said the 40-year-old Pastor Silwal, he had been a stern Hindu who rebuked his two sisters mercilessly for becoming Christians. He forbade them to visit their church, which gathered in secret due to the ban on non-Buddhist religions in place at the time. They were also forbidden to bring the Bible inside their house in Geylegphug, a district in southern Bhutan close to the Indian border.

“I became a believer in 1988 after a near-death experience,” Pastor Silwal told Compass. “I contracted malaria and was on the verge of death since no one could diagnose it. All the priests and shamans consulted by my Hindu family failed to cure me. One day, when I thought I was going to die I had a vision.”

The pastor said he saw a white-robed figure holding a Bible in one hand and beckoning to him with the other. “Have faith in me,” the figure told him. “I will cure you.”

When he woke from his trance, Silwal asked his sisters to fetch him a copy of the Bible. They were alarmed at first, thinking he was going to beat them. But at his insistence, they nervously fetched the book from the thatched roof of the cow shed where they had kept it hidden. Pastor Silwal said he tried to read the Bible but was blinded by his fever and lost consciousness.

When he awoke, to his amazement and joy, the fever that had racked him for nearly five months was gone.

Pastor Silwal lost his home in 1990 to the ethnic and religious purge that forced him to flee along with thousands of others. It wasn’t until 1998, he said, that he and his family formally converted to Christianity after seven years of grueling hardship in the refugee camp, where he saw “people dying like flies due to illness, lack of food and the cold.”

“My little son too fell ill and I thought he would die,” Silwal said. “But he was cured; we decided to embrace Christianity formally.”


In 2001, Bhutan4Christ reported the number of Bhutanese Christians to be around 19,000, with the bulk of them – more than 10,500 – living in Nepal.

When persecution by the Bhutanese government began, frightened families raced towards towns in India across the border. Alarmed by the influx of Bhutanese refugees, Indian security forces packed them into trucks and dumped them in southern Nepal.

Later, when the homesick refugees tried to return home, Indian security forces blocked the way. There were several rounds of scuffles, resulting in police killing at least three refugees.

Simon Gazmer was seven when his family landed at the bank of the Mai river in Jhapa district in southeastern Nepal. Now 24, he still remembers the desolation that reigned in the barren land, where mists and chilly winds rose from the river, affecting the morale and health of the refugees. They lived in bamboo shacks with thin plastic sheets serving as roofs; they had little food or medicine.

“My uncle Padam Bahadur had tuberculosis, and we thought he would die,” said Gazmer, who lives in Beldangi II, the largest of seven refugee camps. “His recovery made us realize the grace of God, and our family became Christians.”

The plight of the refugees improved after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in, receiving permission from the government of Nepal to run the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there were 111,631 registered refugees in seven camps run in the two districts of Jhapa and Morang.

Though Nepal held 15 rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan for the repatriation of the refugees, the Buddhist government dragged its feet, eventually breaking off talks. Meantime, international donors assisting the refugee camps began to grow weary, resulting in the slashing of aid and food. Finally, seven western governments – Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands – persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in third countries.

The exodus of the refugees started in 2007. Today, according to the UNHCR, more than 26,000 have left for other countries, mostly the United States. A substantial number of the nearly 85,000 people left in the camps are ready to follow suit.

Although they now have a new life to look forward to, many of Bhutan’s Christian refugees are saddened by the knowledge that their homeland still remains barred to them. So some are looking at the next best thing: a return to Nepal, now that it is secular, where they will feel more at home than in the West.

“I don’t have grand dreams,” said Pastor Silwal. “In Australia I want to enroll in a Bible college and become a qualified preacher. Then I want to return to Nepal to spread the word of God.”  

Report from Compass Direct News 

Court Seeks Help to Link Murders in Turkey to ‘Deep State’

Reports mount linking top gendarmerie officials to Malatya slaughter.

MALATYA, Turkey, November 17 (CDN) — Judges and prosecutors in the trial regarding the murder of three Christians in this southeastern city in Turkey on Friday (Nov. 13) renewed their request for help from the Istanbul High Criminal Court as reports mounted linking the slayings to top gendarmerie officials.

The Malatya court judges overseeing hearings on the murders of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske requested that the Istanbul criminal court establish whether the case was linked to the controversial cabal of military, political and other influential figures, Ergenekon, which has allegedly been trying to overthrow the government by upsetting Turkey’s peace.

For the last two and a half years prosecuting lawyers have established the case that Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who were caught at the murder scene on April 18, 2007, were not acting independently but were incited by Turkey’s “deep state,” an expression of which is Ergenekon. Seven months ago the Malatya court requested from prosecutors on the Ergenekon case at the Istanbul high court to examine whether the two cases were connected. They have not received a reply yet.

The court and various mainstream media have received informant letters with specific names linking the murders to top gendarmerie officials. Last month a Turkish newspaper received a list of payments the gendarmerie made to informants to physically follow and collect information on Christians in Malatya. Phone trees also show calls made from the murderers to two alleged “middle-men,” Huseyin Yelki and Bulent Varol Aral, gendarmerie officials and other nationalist figures in Malatya.

“We are expecting the Istanbul prosecutor to make a careful investigation and give us a response and attest to the connections the court has found,” said prosecuting attorney Erdal Dogan on Friday during a press briefing. “The actions of these men who are on trial were not independent, and from the beginning we believed they were organized by Ergenekon. Our theories have become more concrete, and we are expecting the Istanbul prosecutor to investigate these closely, establish the connections and give us a response.”

Lawyers said that informant letters, testimonies and other evidence have only confirmed their original suspicions. The most striking of these is that the local gendarmerie forces were following activities of Christians in Malatya in the months leading up to the murders and afterwards yet did not stop the young men from stabbing and slashing the three Christians to death.

“If you have been watching a small, tiny group so closely,” said lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz, “how could it be possible that you disregard this murder? This is a legitimate question which requires ordinary intelligence.” 

Last month the head of Istanbul police intelligence, Ramazan Akyurek, was demoted amid allegations that he had neglected to investigate three Christian murder cases between 2006 and 2007. When Turkish news reporters asked Dogan whether prosecutors would make a request to investigate whether Akyurek played a greater part in the murders, he said that it was not out of the question.

The five young suspects were apprehended after Zirve Publishing Co. workers went to the publishing house to find out why the three Christian men were not answering their phones. Finding the door of the office locked and getting no answer, they called police. In a report prepared by Akyurek’s department, his staff claimed that the murderers were apprehended thanks to phone tapping – which attorney Dogan said is a lie.

“According to a report, they said that they had been listening to the murderers’ phones and following them, and that that’s how they found and arrested them,” said Dogan. “You know this is a lie. The five men were arrested haphazardly. We know that. We also know that the gendarmerie was in fact listening to their conversations, but there’s something interesting here: On the one hand they are listening to the criminals’ phones, but on the other they couldn’t thwart the crime.”

Prosecuting lawyers said that this makes both Akyurek’s department and the gendarmerie guilty of being accomplices to the crime, and that they should be tried along with the five young men.

“They should stand trial for not thwarting a crime and failing to perform their duties,” said Dogan. “They [gendarmerie and the police intelligence security] should be tried under Article 8 of the penal code as accomplices because they are connected. This is not a question of removing someone from his position. They should stand trial with the men who are now on trial.”

The lawyers expressed frustration at being able to see the bigger picture yet not having enough evidence to proceed, as well as with having to wait on the Istanbul prosecutor for more evidence.

“It is crystal clear,” said attorney Cengiz. “There is a much bigger agenda and much more complex connections. We convinced everyone, but we cannot do this beyond reasonable doubt; we can’t prove it. We are blocked, actually.”

Cengiz explained that as lawyers for the victims’ families, they are not in a position to collect evidence.

“We are heavily dependent on what the prosecutor is doing, and unfortunately they are not able to do much,” he said.

Cengiz said that although the case was complicated and the Malatya judges resisted their arguments at the outset of the hearings, now they agree with the prosecuting lawyers that there is a broader network behind the murders.

“Now they are very clear – they know what happened and what kind of connections there are, etcetera, but they are fighting against a dragon,” said Cengiz. “So they desperately sent this request to the prosecutor in Istanbul, hoping that it will be the Istanbul prosecutor who will create these links rather than them. It should be vice versa because they have all these details, but they are not ready for this confrontation.”

Cengiz explained that while the Malatya court has a better understanding of the case than the Istanbul prosecutors, the advantage of the Istanbul High Criminal Court is that it has the backing of the Justice Ministry and is better positioned to take on the powers that may be behind this and other murders. 

“They can’t take the responsibility because this is just a tiny court in the remote part of Turkey, so how can they confront the reality?” he said.

The next hearing is set for Dec. 25, and prosecutors expect that by then the 13th Istanbul High Criminal Court will have sent an answer about connections of the murders to Ergenekon. They are also expecting the prosecuting judge to demand all five of the young men be charged with “three times life imprisonment,” plus additional years for organizing the crime.

“In our estimation, until now in a bizarre way the accused are acting like they have been given assurances that they will be forgiven and will get off the hook,” Dogan commented on the comfortable demeanor of the five men in court and their denial that others were behind the murders. “In the last months we see a continuation of the attempts to wreak havoc and chaos and overthrow the government. So we think whoever is giving confidence to these guys is affecting them. It is obvious to us that there is a group actively doing this. That means they are still trying to create chaos.”

Last week Ergenekon prosecutors found a hit-list consisting of 10 prominent representatives of minority groups as well as subscribers to Armenian weekly newspaper Agos, whose editor-in-chief was murdered three months before the Christians in Malatya. Cengiz explained that Ergenekon members are obsessed with purging Turkey of non-Muslim elements and non-Turkish minorities, which they see as a threat to the state.  

“They were trying to create chaos in Turkey, and of course they were trying to send a clear message to members of non-Muslim groups that they are not wanted in Turkey,” said Cengiz of the way the three Christians in Malatya were murdered. “They did it in a horrendous, barbaric way. This was also part of the message. Everything was planned but not by them, by other people. They are just puppets.”

Further Evidence of Cabal

This week Turkish news magazine Yeni Aktuel published a five-page article with pictures chronicling the “anti-terrorist” activities of a counter-guerilla team leader identified only by his initials, K.T.

In the article, K.T. described how for years he and his team pursued and killed members of the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). Anti-guerilla activities in Turkey are paramilitary efforts managed by the “deep state.”

In K.T.’s account, he claimed that during his time in Malatya he met with members of an ultra-nationalist group who talked about murdering Hrant Dink, editor of Agos. Also during that time, members of the group spoke about how those who distributed Bibles in Malatya had to be “punished.”

One of the members of this group was a high school teacher called “O.” The teacher said that he arranged to be out of town before the Malatya murders, because police were following him and he wanted to make sure that they could not connect him to the Malatya murders.

Report from Compass Direct News