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 

Indian bishop: No one held responsible for destruction

Archbishop Rafael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, India deplored this week that two years after the widespread attacks on Christians in Orissa, no one has been detained or charged for the grave damage to property and lives that resulted, reports Catholic News Agency.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, the cardinal commented that “people are afraid to return, because they fear being attacked again. In addition, it doesn’t appear that the criminals have been punished yet, despite that two years have passed.”

“No one has been charged for the damage to property, for those who lost their lives or for those who were forced to flee. No criminal has been punished for this,” he stated.

The archbishop asserted that, “Christians were attacked above all because of fundamentalist Hindu ideology, which challenges the way in which a Hindu nation should be founded. So the fundamentalists looked for an opportunity to do this. The main reason for the attack on Kandhamal is because it was an area where a large number of conversions have taken place over the last ten years,” he said.

In addition, the archbishop said, “the Dalit, the so-called untouchables, were considered outsiders, with no right to speak and uneducated. Now, however, they are developing socially and economically and making great progress.”

Archbishop Cheenath also said that he believes Hindus are worried that they will be shamed by the Dalit Christian converts.

“Hindus don’t want people who were once their slaves to achieve more respectable positions in society, with good jobs and better positions. The advancement of the Dalit and of the tribes challenges the upper classes: Hindus do not want this to happen, and for this reason they want to stop it. Basically, the reason is that they do not want the outsiders to grow and put the upper class to the test.”

Asked later about the state of the faith of Christians, the archbishop said, “While at the beginning the situation was very sad and hopeless, I have seen much faith in the people. They are full of hope, their faith is very strong and they express it in many ways. We will be able to rebuild on the foundation of the people’s faith,” he said.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Legislation leading to anti-Christian attacks said to be planned in violence-ridden state.

NEW DELHI, March 2 (Compass Direct News) – The Hindu nationalist government in the southern state of Karnataka, which recorded the second highest number of attacks on Christians last year, is planning to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti-Christian violence in other states.

Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. Comments from public officials sometimes heighten this misconception: India’s constitution provides for freedom of religion, but Karnataka Minister for Law, Justice and Human Rights S. Suresh Kumar said in the Feb. 22 edition of a Hindu extremist publication that the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government “is set to frame an anti-conversion law, as innocent Hindus are getting converted to other religions.”

“Poor and uneducated Hindus are becoming victims of false propaganda against Hinduism, and our government is planning to enact a law after studying the similar anti-conversion acts/anti-conversion bills of various states,” the BJP minister said in the Organiser, official publication of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Cynically named “Freedom of Religion Acts,” the laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations. Numerous cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws, mainly in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in the more than four decades since such laws were enacted.

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), expressed anguish over reported plans to introduce a law that has a history of misuse by extreme Hindu nationalists. He also indicated his concern at the government’s slackness in prosecuting those who have attacked Christians.

“Unfortunately, 2008 saw the worst kind of regression in our society as the church in India experienced a wave of violence and persecution unprecedented since the origin of Christianity in India 2,000 years ago,” George said, referring to a sudden rise in anti-Christian attacks in several Indian states, mainly Karnataka and the eastern state of Orissa, in the latter part of last year.

With the BJP forming a government of its own last year, fears within the Christian community that persecution would increase came true, he said.

“Karnataka recorded at least 112 anti-Christian attacks across 29 districts in 2008,” and at least 10 more such incidents have been reported this year, said George. Christians number slightly more than 1 million of Karnataka’s 52.8-million population.

Among the more tense districts in Karnataka are Mangalore, Bangalore and Davangere, according to George. The districts of Chikmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimoga, Dharwad and Kodagu are also potentially volatile, he said. The GCIC reported that on Jan. 11 unidentified extreme Hindu nationalists barged into the home of a Christian convert in Amrthmahal Kavalu area near Tiptur town in Karnataka’s Tumkur district, verbally abused the four Christians there and burned their Bibles. The nine hard-line Hindus threatened to burn down the house if the Christians continued to worship at the Calvary Gospel Centre.

Besides legitimizing anti-Christian violence in the popular mind, critics say anti-conversion laws make conversion cumbersome and identify targets for Hindu extremists. In Gujarat state, the archbishop of Gandhinagar, Rev. Stanislaus Fernandes, and non-profit organizations have filed a petition in the state high court challenging a requirement in Gujarat’s anti-conversion law that co-religionists obtain prior permission from a district magistrate before performing or participating in a conversion ceremony. The Times of India reported on Friday (Feb. 27) that Justice M.S. Shah and Justice Akil Kureshi have accepted the case and issued a notice to the state government seeking explanation on objections raised by petitioners.

“The Act, by making one’s conversion a matter of public notice and knowledge, really aims at facilitating and encouraging the religious fanatics to take law into their hands to prevent even free and voluntary conversion,” petitioner attorneys contended. “In the name of maintaining law and order, the Act will invite people to disturb law and order.” Counsel added that the Act aims mainly at “preventing Dalits and adivasis [tribal people] from converting to another religion, thereby forcing them to remain in the Hindu fold.”


Orissa Fallout

A fresh spate of attacks hit Karnataka last September following India’s worst-ever wave of persecution in the eastern state of Orissa, where at least 127 people were killed and 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions were destroyed. The Orissa attacks, allegedly incited by the BJP and the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) under the pretext of avenging the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati in Kandhamal district, also rendered more than 50,000 people homeless. Although an extreme Marxist group claimed responsibility for Saraswati’s murder, the VHP and the BJP, which is part of the ruling coalition in Orissa, blamed Christians for it.

Even as the mayhem in Orissa was underway, VHP’s youth wing Bajrang Dal began attacks on Christians and their institutions in Karnataka on the pretext of protesting alleged distribution by the New Life Fellowship organization of a book said to denigrate Hindu gods. According to Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, last September at least 33 churches were attacked and 53 Christians were injured, mainly in the Mangalore region of Dakshina Kannada district and parts of Udupi district.

The state convener for the Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar, publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks and was arrested on Sept. 19, a day after the federal government ruled by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance admonished the state government for allowing attacks on Christians, according to The Deccan Herald, a regional daily. Kumar, however, was subsequently released on bail.

While the issue of the “objectionable” book served as the pretext for the attacks, the BJP had already become upset with New Life Fellowship because a film actress known as Nagma announced in July 2008 that she had become Christian a few years prior. BJP attorneys sent her a threatening legal notice for “hurting religious sentiments.”

In a press conference at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu state on July 24, the general secretary of the BJP’s legal wing, Sridhar Murthi, said that Nagma – who appeared in several Tamil-, Telugu- and Hindi-language films from 1993 to 1997 – had hurt the sentiments of others while speaking at a Christian meeting in Nalumavadi, in the Tuticorin area.

“In that meeting, she said she is ready to preach the gospel in every city and town that the Lord takes her to,” reported The Christian Messenger, a Christian news website based in Tamil Nadu state. New Life Fellowship later reportedly ordained Nagma as a minister.

Following the attacks – not only on New Life Church but also on churches and individuals from various denominations – the BJP government set up the Justice B.K. Somasekhara Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Churches and Christians had filed 458 affidavits from Dakshina Kannada district. After questioning 49 witnesses, the panel completed its five-day judicial proceeding in Mangalore on Feb. 20 and set the next sitting for March 16-20. The Commission earlier had a sitting in Bangalore, capital of Karnataka.

Karnataka also has gained recent notoriety for violent vigilantes. Last month a splinter group from the extreme Hindu nationalist VHP, the Sri Ram Sene, attacked women in a pub in Mangalore, saying only men were allowed to drink.

“These girls come from all over India, drink, smoke, and walk around in the night spoiling the traditional girls of Mangalore,” Pravin Valke, founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, told The Indian Express on Feb. 3. “Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapattis [Indian bread]? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m.”

With national elections expected to be held in April-May this year, Christians fear that attacks could continue. Dr. Bokanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa, the 66-year-old chief minister of Karnataka, has been part of the RSS since 1970.

Report from Compass Direct News