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


Christians fear police coercing them to drop charges of Muslim attack on monastery.

ISTANBUL, May 29 (Compass Direct News) – Police this month released two Copts wrongfully arrested for killing a Muslim during an attack on Abu Fana monastery in Egypt in May 2008, but then re-arrested them as part of an intimidation campaign against Christians, their lawyer said.

More worrisome to the Christians in custody is that their fate most likely will be decided outside of the justice system, in “reconciliation meetings.” The state prosecutor investigating the case has not announced the results of his findings on the true identity of the murderer, as he is awaiting the outcome of the out-of-court talks between Copts and local Muslims.

Brothers Refaat and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo have been incarcerated for a year. On May 3 the two brothers were released on bail, but the Minya State Security Services issued a new detention order and had them arrested on May 20 for “security reasons.” Egyptian security forces can incarcerate people without reason according to provisions in criminal law.

A criminal court in Cairo ordered the release of the Fawzy Abdo brothers twice, but each time the interior ministry issued another arrest order. Advocacy groups say the interior ministry is working with local police and the investigating officer to keep them detained, force a confession and make the Copts look guilty in the Abu Fana attack.

“Police arrested them for reasons of ‘security concerns’ in spite of no evidence,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts of Great Britain. “They are comforting Islamists by scapegoating Christians.”

The two men worked as building contractors on the walls of Abu Fana monastery in Upper Egypt when nearly 60 armed Muslim residents attacked it in May 2008. The attack left one Muslim dead and four Christians injured, and two of three monks briefly kidnapped were tortured.

Five days after the attacks, security forces arrested the Fawzy Abdo brothers, charging them with murder. In November they were sent to El Wadi El Gadid Detention Camp near the Egypt-Sudan border and tortured as authorities tried to extract a false confession of murder, their lawyer said.

Minya Gov. Ahmed Dia el-Din claimed the Muslim murdered at Abu Fana was killed by one of the brothers from 80 meters away. But the Coptic brothers’ lawyer, Zachary Kamal, told Compass that an autopsy showed a bullet fired from a short distance.

The two men have faced extreme conditions in prison such as solitary confinement and broken teeth from beatings, and they have not been allowed to see their families, who are undergoing extreme hardship. Refaat Fawzy Abdo has six children and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo has seven; both Christians are the breadwinners of their households.

Reconciliation Instead of Justice?

Reconciliation meetings with area Muslims continue with the participation of Coptic businessmen, the diocese of Mallawi, a member of Parliament and attorney Kamal, all under the auspices of the police.

Such meetings are somewhat customary in Egypt, in which different parties come together to settle legal matters out of court. They carry a social purpose of restoring faith and communal harmony in the face of sectarian tensions.

Kamal said he was not opposed to a reconciliation meeting instead of normal judicial channels, but that terms of the discussion were unacceptable. Authorities want the brothers to admit to the murder of the Muslim and the Copts to pay compensation to the victim’s family.

“They want the Copts to accept guilt, but that means they will carry the blood of the victim the rest of their lives,” Kamal said.

Other Copts worry that the meetings are a substitute for administrative justice, and that police are using the brothers as a bargaining tool to force Abu Fana’s monks to drop charges against local Muslims and call off the investigation of the attack.

“The brothers are still held because they are being used as a negotiation chip,” said Samia Sidhom, English editor of Egyptian Christian weekly Watani. “The reconciliation efforts are to make the monks change their testimony. If they do that, the brothers will be released.”

Sidhom said that Coptic church leaders entered into negotiations with local Muslims and politicians and gave up their legal rights because obtaining justice in the Islamist-tilted Egyptian legal system is very difficult.

“Typically a Copt or their buildings are attacked, and the only way for the police to avoid punishing the culprits is through these reconciliation meetings, where the Copts give up any legal rights they have,” Sidhom said.

State officials, however, said the Copts are superimposing religious persecution claims onto a simple argument over property. The Minya governor said the attacks were not religious but were provoked by a long-standing land dispute between the monks and local Bedouins.

Whether the monastery attack started as a land dispute or not, the findings of secular rights groups revealed that in the course of the violence, attackers tied two of the kidnapped monks to a palm tree, whipped and beat them, and forced them to spit on a cross and give the confession of Islam, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Motives for the May 2008 attacks against the monastery, located 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Cairo, are still unknown. Coptic advocacy groups claim the attacks were motivated by growing hostility against Egypt’s Christian community.

Report from Compass Direct News