Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says

Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.


Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News

Alleged Bomber of Christian Boy in Israel to Stand Trial

Hearing could determine whether Jack Teitel is transferred from mental hospital.

ISTANBUL, September 3 (CDN) — An Israeli man accused of planting a homemade bomb that almost killed the son of a Messianic Jewish pastor in Ariel, Israel has been declared competent to stand trial.

Jack Teitel, 37, who in November was indicted on two charges of pre-meditated murder, three charges of attempted murder and numerous weapons charges, is expected to enter a plea on Sunday (Sept. 5).

David and Leah Ortiz, parents of the teenage victim, said that the 10 months since the indictment have been difficult but their stance toward Teitel remains the same; they have forgiven him for the attack but want him to face justice before a judge and seek salvation from God.

If nothing else, they said, they want him incarcerated to keep other Messianic Jews from being attacked either by Teitel or those following his lead.

“He’s dangerous,” Leah Ortiz said. “He’s an extremely dangerous person. He’s totally unrepentant.”

Sunday’s plea will open the way for a trial expected to start within weeks and last for more than six months. Officials at a hearing possibly the same day as the scheduled plea will decide whether Teitel will be moved from the mental hospital where he has been held for most of his detainment.

It is possible Teitel will enter no plea on Sunday. He has publically stated that he doesn’t “recognize the jurisdiction” of Jerusalem District Court.



On March 20, 2008, Ami Ortiz, then 15, opened a gift basket that someone had left anonymously at his family’s home in Ariel. The basket disappeared in a massive explosion that destroyed much of the Ortiz home and shattered Ami’s body.

When he arrived at the hospital, Ami was clinging to life. He was bleeding profusely, had burns covering much of his body and was full of needles, screws and glass fragments the bomb-maker had built into the device.

The doctors had little hope for him and listed his condition as “anush,” meaning his soul was about to leave his body.

After countless hours of surgery and even more spent in prayer, Ami went from “near dead,” to burned and blind and eventually to playing basketball on a national youth team. Both his parents said his recovery was nothing short of a miracle from God.


‘Most Radical Evangelist’

When Teitel was arrested in October 2009, police found him hanging up posters celebrating the shooting of two teenagers at a gay and lesbian community center in Tel Aviv.

Teitel’s background is still somewhat of a mystery. An emigrant from the United States, he became an Israeli citizen in 2000, got married not long afterwards and is the father of four children. Usually portrayed in Israeli media as part ultra-orthodox ideologue and part fringe survivalist, it is clear that Teitel was motivated by a fascination with end-times prophecy and an extremely violent interpretation of Judaism and Jewish nationalism.

He is a self-described follower of such anti-missionary groups as Yad L’Achim. According to authorities, Teitel sought to kill those he deemed enemies of traditional Judaism: Palestinians, homosexuals, liberal Jewish intellectuals and, in the Ortiz case, Messianic Jews.

David Ortiz is well known in Israel, both for his activities in the Jewish community and for his efforts to expose Palestinians to the gospel.

“He said the reason why he wanted to kill me was that I was the most radical in evangelism, so I had to be first,” said Ortiz, who has seen transcripts of Teitel’s confessions.

Along with the Ortiz case, police said Teitel is responsible for the June 1997 shooting death of Samir Bablisi, a Palestinian taxi driver who was found in his cab with a single bullet wound to his head. Two months later, police said, Teitel allegedly shot Isa Jabarin, a Palestinian shepherd who was giving him driving directions to Jerusalem.

Police also said that Teitel attempted to burn down a monastery and unsuccessfully planted several bombs. He also is accused of the September 2008 bombing of Zeev Sternhell of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bombing left the emeritus history professor slightly wounded.

During one court hearing, Teitel flashed a victory sign and reportedly said, “It was a pleasure and honor to serve my God. God is proud of what I have done. I have no regrets.”


Long Road to Trial

David Ortiz said that as bad as the bombing itself was, waiting for the trial has been yet another ordeal.

As officials investigated the bombing, police harassed Messianic Jewish friends of theirs, saying, “If you are Jewish, why did you become a Christian?” Ortiz said.

The Ortiz family had to sue police and pay 5,000 shekels (US$1,320) to obtain a copy of a security camera video belonging to the family that police had seized as evidence. The video shows Teitel laying the basket at the Ortiz home.

“We had to hire a lawyer because we understood clearly that our rights as victims had to be protected,” said David Ortiz.

Particularly galling to the pastor has been the hands-off response of government officials to the attack.

“We are the only family in Israel that has been a victim of an attack that hasn’t been visited by a government official,” he said, adding that officials have made no public condemnation of the attack. “If the leaders do not condemn an act, it emboldens others who want to do the same thing.”

According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2009 issued by the U.S. Department of State, there are 10,000 Messianic Jews in Israel. The report documents several cases of violence against Messianic Jews, including cases where baptismal services have been disrupted, Messianic Jews have been beaten and Christian literature has been torched.


God Shows Up

Leah Ortiz said that what Teitel intended for evil, God meant for good in order to reach people.

“The Lord has taken the worst tragedy that could possibly happen and has used it for the greatest good that He possibly could,” she said.

The incident, and how the Ortiz family has dealt with it, has become a lightning rod of sorts in Israel, forcing people to think more seriously about the claims of the Messianic Jews.

In a place filled with the type of hatred that causes people to strap bombs to their bodies to kill others, the attack has given people a reason to think and, for some, to choose forgiveness and peace.

Ortiz said he has gotten calls from Palestinians who had said if he could forgive a man who bombed his child, then they can forgive what has happened to them. Orthodox Jews have called him and asked forgiveness for their hatred toward Messianic Jews. Muslims have called Ortiz offering blood for transfusions for Ami.

Ortiz said he was devastated after the attack, but that he has been blessed to see God working “supernaturally” through the incident. Ami is an example of God’s grace and healing power, Ortiz said, explaining, “Ami has been a wonder within my own eyes. How could anyone who went through so much be so peaceful?”

Ami’s high school friends, most of them not Messianic Jews, have sought him out and asked him about the ordeal.  Ortiz said he thinks God will use him in a big way.

His wife explained, “I have that sense this is about something bigger. This is something bigger than what has happened to us and to our family.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Court Acquits Two Evangelists of ‘Illegal Preaching’

Constitutional freedom of religion overcomes objections from annoyed Muslims.

NAIROBI, Kenya, August 13 (CDN) — A Tanzanian court yesterday acquitted two evangelists of “illegal preaching.”

After 10 months of hearings, a Kariakoo area court in Dar es Salaam closed the case against Anglican Christians Eleutery Kobelo and Cecil Simbaulanga, who were arrested in October 2009 after Muslims invited them to participate in a religious debate at which the opponents did not appear, but authorities did.

The two evangelists maintained that no Muslims showed up to the neutral site of the supposed inter-faith debate until Islamists arrived with government security agents who charged them with “using religious sermons to incite Muslims and Christians into viewing each other with suspicion.”

The accusers had claimed that the Christians’ message that Jesus is God had annoyed Muslims and therefore disrupted a peaceful coexistence between those of the two faiths.

Kobelo told Compass by telephone that the Muslims failed to show up in court to support their allegation of illegal preaching. After the verdict, Christians shouting for joy greeted the evangelists as they left the courtroom, he said.

“We are grateful that that the court has done justice and made its ruling based on Tanzania’s constitution that allows for freedom of religion and assembly,” Kobelo said. “We thank the Christians worldwide for praying for us and Compass for highlighting our plight.”

Simbaulanga said the message of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection cannot be stopped.

“The court decision will make us preach the gospel more vigorously, and many Muslims will turn to Christ,” he told Compass. “Muslims tried to stop the movement, but nobody can stop the gospel.”

Kobelo and Simbaulanga were in jail for seven days before they were released on bail on Oct. 27.

Simbaulanga was imprisoned for 62 days between December 2006 and February 2007 in Kigoma, he said. Denied bail, he was accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christ and “abusing Islam” by saying Muhammad had married a young girl. Several cases are pending against him in different courts, he said, and Muslims are constantly searching for him.

An estimated 62 percent of Tanzania’s population is Christian and 35 percent is Muslim, mostly Sunni; other religious groups make up the other 3 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Police in the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma stopped two Christian evangelists from reading excerpts from the Quran in an outdoor event on March 18, 2009, according to the state department’s 2009 International Religious Freedom Report. Officers temporarily detained them and released them with a warning not to read the Quran during sermons to avoid antagonizing the Muslim community.

Report from Compass Direct News

Family of 17-Year-Old Somali Girl Abuses Her for Leaving Islam

Young Christian beaten, shackled to tree.

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 15 (CDN) — The Muslim parents of a 17-year-old Somali girl who converted to Christianity severely beat her for leaving Islam and have regularly shackled her to a tree at their home for more than a month, Christian sources said.

Nurta Mohamed Farah of Bardher, Gedo Region in southern Somalia, has been confined to her home since May 10, when her family found out that she had embraced Christianity, said a Christian leader who visited the area.

“When the woman’s family found out that she converted to Christianity, she was beaten badly but insisted on her new-found religion,” said the source on condition of anonymity.

Her parents also took her to a doctor who prescribed medication for a “mental illness,” he said. Alarmed by her determination to keep her faith, her father, Hassan Kafi Ilmi, and mother, Hawo Godane Haf, decided she had gone crazy and forced her to take the prescribed medication, but it had no effect in swaying her from her faith, the source said.

Traditionally, he added, many Somalis believe the Quran cures the sick, especially the mentally ill, so the Islamic scripture is continually recited to her twice a week.

“The girl is very sick and undergoing intense suffering,” he said.

Her suffering began after she declined her family’s offer of forgiveness in exchange for renouncing Christianity, the source said. The confinement began after the medication and punishments failed.

The tiny, shaken Christian community in Gedo Region reports that the girl is shackled to a tree by day and is put in a small, dark room at night, he said.

“There is little the community can do about her condition, which is very bad, but I have advised our community leader to keep monitoring her condition but not to meddle for their own safety,” the source told Compass. “We need prayers and human advocacy for such inhuman acts, and for freedom of religion for the Somali people.”

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government generally did not enforce protection of religious freedom found in the Transitional Federal Charter, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 International Religious Freedom Report.

“Non-Muslims who practiced their religion openly faced occasional societal harassment,” the report stated. “Conversion from Islam to another religion was considered socially unacceptable. Those suspected of conversion faced harassment or even death from members of their community.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Iranian Christian Women Acquitted of all Charges

Young converts previously held in prison for Christian activities have fled country.

ISTANBUL, May 27 (CDN) — Nearly five months after releasing them from prison, an Iranian court has acquitted two women of all charges related to being Christians and engaging in Christian activities.

Iranians Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad were arrested on March 5, 2009 and detained on charges of “acting against state security,” “taking part in illegal gatherings” and “apostasy” (leaving Islam) under Iran’s Revolutionary Court system.

After nearly eight months, on Nov. 18, 2009 authorities released them conditionally.

Although the court hearing their case originally set April 13 as their trial date, Compass was unable to confirm on what date the two women were acquitted, nor the conditions of their acquittal.

Senior Iranian judges and officials repeatedly intimidated the two women and pressured them to recant their faith, according to a press statement by Elam Ministries last week.

“They were warned that any future Christian activity in Iran will be seriously dealt with,” according to the statement.

Elam Ministries said the two women had fled Iran on Saturday (May 22) to an undisclosed location and were recovering.

Another Iranian convert who was forced to flee his country under similar circumstances years ago told Compass that he believed the intense lobbying efforts to release and acquit the women brought the government to an unspoken “standoff” with Christian rights groups outside the country.

“I think the court just made a political decision, ‘We will let you go, but we will not allow you to stay in the country,’” said the Iranian Christian, who requested anonymity. “That’s a pretty old-fashioned procedure they have – ‘We will let you go if you leave the country. You can have your faith, but not here.’”

In general, when Iranian authorities arrest Christians, they release them on bail within a few weeks and keep their case files open, thus applying soft pressure while allowing them to continue living in Iran. In cases where the government wants to remove Christians from the country because of their Christian activities, authorities have handed the Christians their passports and documents and told them to leave.

Iran’s government views all Christian activities as foreign intervention and thus a threat to national security. The two women’s families had hired a private lawyer.

Since their release, the young converts to Christianity had been waiting for a trial date and decision from an Iranian court to decide their fate as Christians living their faith. During this time, sources said that authorities watched them closely and that the two women were under “pressure” and received threatening phone calls.

“The government would not want them to stay in the country as heroes,” said the Iranian Christian. “It would be better for the government if they left Iran and didn’t become a positive example for the rest of the Christian community in Iran. Otherwise they would create a precedent of [Christians] who have not denied their faith, who have been acquitted and still live as Christians inside the country.”

The two women thanked Christians who have been praying for them, according to Elam.

“We hope to eventually share some of what the Lord allowed us to go through to highlight the need and the opportunity for the church in Iran, but right now we will take time to pray and seek the Lord for His will,” said Rostampour, according to Elam’s press statement.

Iran’s Constitution gives Christians “protected” religious minority status, but in practice they face substantial societal discrimination, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2009.

An article mandating death for apostates in accordance with sharia (Islamic law) reportedly has been stricken from a draft penal code, but experts on Iran say The Council of Guardians and Iran’s Supreme Leader still have the final say on who receives capital punishment for leaving Islam.

Report from Compass Direct News

Threat of Return to Hindu State in Nepal Looms

With deadline for new constitution approaching, Christians fear end of secular government.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 30 (CDN) — Four years after Nepal became officially secular, fear is growing that the country could revert to the Hindu state it was till 2006, when proclaiming Christ was a punishable offense and many churches functioned clandestinely to avoid being shut down.

Concerns were heightened after Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra Shah, once regarded as a Hindu god, broke the silence he has observed since Nepal abolished monarchy in 2008. During his visit to a Hindu festival this month, the former king said that monarchy was not dead and could make a comeback if people so desired.

Soon after that, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister and respected leader of the largest ruling party, said that instead of getting a new constitution, Nepal should revive an earlier one. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom with a constitutional monarch.

There is now growing doubt that the ruling parties will not be able to fashion the new constitution they promised by May.

“We feel betrayed,” said Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal. “The Constituent Assembly we elected to give us a new constitution that would strengthen democracy and secularism has frittered away the time and opportunity given to it.”

The clamor for a Hindu state has been growing as the May 28 deadline for the new constitution draws near. When a Hindu preacher, Kalidas Dahal, held a nine-day prayer ritual in Kathmandu this month seeking reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, thousands of people flocked to him. The throng included three former prime ministers and top leaders of the ruling parties.

“The large turnout signals that Hinduism is enshrined in the hearts of the people and can’t be abolished by the government,” said Hridayesh Tripathi, a former minister and Constituent Assembly member whose Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party is the fifth-largest in the ruling alliance. “It was a mistake to abolish Hinduism in a hurry.”

Another blow for a Hindu state was struck by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), the only party that fought the 2008 election in support of monarchy and a Hindu state. It is now calling for a referendum. As a pressure tactic, it paralyzed the capital and its two neighboring cities in February by calling a general strike.

“The election gave the Constituent Assembly the mandate of writing a new constitution, not deciding issues of national importance,” said Kamal Thapa, the RPP-N chief who also was home minister during the brief government headed by Gyanendra. “Most people in Nepal want a Hindu state and a constitutional king. If their demand is not heeded, they will feel excluded and refuse to follow the new constitution. We are asking the government to hold a referendum on the two issues before May 28.”

With only two months left, it is clear the demand can’t be met if the constitution is to come into effect within the stipulated time. Now the specter of anarchy and violence hangs over Nepal.

Nepal’s Maoists, who fought a 10-year war to make Nepal a secular republic and who remain the former king’s most bitter enemy, say attempts have begun to whip up riots in the name of a Hindu state. The former guerrillas also allege that the campaign for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion is backed by ministers, politicians from the ruling parties and militant religious groups from India.

Effectively Hindu

Even if a new, secular constitution is approved by the deadline, there is still no guarantee that the rights of religious minorities would be protected.

Nilambar Acharya, who heads the committee that is drafting the new constitution, said it would be merely a broad guideline for the government; compatible laws would have to be drafted to protect rights.

“The previous constitution abolished ‘untouchability’ [a practice among Hindus of treating those at the bottom of the social ladder as outcasts],” Acharya told Compass. “But untouchability still exists in Nepal. To achieve all that the constitution promises, the mindset of society has to be changed first. For that, you need political will.”

Though Nepal became secular in 2006, Hinduism still gets preferential treatment. The state allocates funds for institutions like the Kumari, the tradition of choosing prepubescent girls as protective deities of the state and worshipping them as “living goddesses.” The state also gave money to organizers of a controversial, five-yearly religious festival, the Gadhimai Fair, where tens of thousands of birds are slaughtered as offerings to Hindu gods despite international condemnation.

There is no support, predictably, for Christian festivals. When the Constituent Assembly was formed – partly though election and partly by nomination – no Christian name was proposed even though the prime minister was authorized to nominate members from unrepresented communities.

Christian leaders want such religious bias abolished. Rokaya of the National Council of Churches of Nepal said Christians have recommended full freedom of religion in the new constitution: allowing one to follow the religion of one’s choice, to change one’s religion if desired or have the right not to be associated with any religion.

The churches have also asked the state not to interfere in religious matters.

“We are asking the government not to fund any religious activity, not to be part of any religious appointments and not to allow public land for any religious event,” Rokaya said.

The recommendations, however, may not be heeded. During their brief stint in power, the Maoists tried to stop state assistance for the Kumari. It led to violence and a general strike in the capital, forcing the party to withdraw the decision.

In its 2009 report on religious freedom in Nepal, the U.S. Department of State notes that while the interim constitution officially declared the country secular, “the president, in his capacity as head of state, attended major Hindu religious ceremonies over which the king previously presided.”

It also notes that there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

“Those who converted to a different religious group occasionally faced violence and were ostracized socially,” it states. “Those who chose to convert to other religious groups, in particular Hindu citizens who converted to Islam or Christianity, were sometimes ostracized. They occasionally faced isolated incidents of hostility or discrimination from Hindu extremist groups. Some reportedly were forced to leave their villages.”

Dr. Ramesh Khatri, executive director of Association for Theological Education in Nepal, has experienced such persecution first-hand. When he became a Christian in 1972, his father disowned him. Then in 1984 he was arrested for holding a Bible camp. Though the case against him was dropped in 1990 after a pro-democracy movement, Khatri said hatred of Christians still persists.

“Christians can never sleep peacefully at night,” he said wryly. “The new constitution will make Nepal another India, where Christians are persecuted in Orissa, Gujarat and Karnataka.” The Oxford University-educated Khatri, who writes a column in a Nepali daily, said violent responses to his articles show how Nepal still regards its Christians.

“I am attacked as a ‘Rice Christian,’” he said. “It is a derogatory term implying I converted for material benefits. The antagonistic feeling society has towards Christians will not subside with the new constitution, and we can’t expect an easy life. The Bible says that, and the Bible is true.”

Christians continue to face persecution and harassment. In March, missions resource organization Timeless Impact International (TII) noted that a church in northern Nepal, near the foothills of Mt. Everest, was attacked by a local mob.

The newly established church in Dolakha district was attacked during a fellowship meeting in January. An ethnic mob headed by religious leaders destroyed the church meeting place, assaulted participants and warned them not to speak about Christianity in the village, TII said.

The situation, even now, remained unchanged.

“None of the church members have been able to return to their homes,” TII stated. “They feel completely unsafe and at risk.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Egyptian Court Refuses to Return Passport to Christian

Convert from Islam tried to leave country to save his life.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — An Egyptian court last week refused to return the passport of a convert from Islam who tried to leave Egypt to save his life, the Christian said on Friday (March 12).

On Tuesday (March 9) the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return the passport of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary. El-Gohary said he was devastated by the decision, which essentially guarantees him several more months of living in fear.

“I am very, very disappointed and very unhappy about what happened,” he said, “because I am being threatened – my life is being threatened, my daughter’s life is being threatened very frequently, and I don’t feel safe at all in Egypt.”

Nabil Ghobreyal, El-Gohary’s attorney, told Compass the government declined to give the court any reason for its actions.

“There was no response as to why his passport was taken,” Ghobreyal said.

On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized El-Gohary’s passport. El-Gohary, 57, also known as Peter Athanasius, was trying to leave the country to visit China. Eventually he intended to travel to the United States. At the time, El-Gohary was told only that his travel had been barred by “higher authority.”

El-Gohary, who converted to Christianity from Islam more than 30 years ago, gained notoriety in Egypt in February 2009, when he filed a court application to have the religion on his identification card changed from Muslim to Christian. El-Gohary’s action caused widespread uproar among conservative Muslims in Egypt. He was branded an “apostate” and multiple fatwas, or religious edicts were issued against him. In accordance with some interpretations of the Quran, some Muslims believe El-Gohary should be killed for leaving Islam.

Since filing his application, El-Gohary has lived in fear and has been in hiding with his 15-year-old daughter. Every month, he said, they move from apartment to apartment. He is unable to work, and his daughter, also a Christian, is unable to attend school.

Their days are filled with anxiety, fear and boredom.

“We are very fearful,” El-Gohary said. “We are hiding between four walls all day long.”

El-Gohary went through extraordinary efforts to get the documentation the court demanded for him to officially change his religion, including getting a certificate of conversion from a Coptic Christian religious group. The certificate, which was the first time a Christian church in Egypt recognized a convert from Islam, also caused an uproar.

But ultimately, in June the court denied his application. He was the second person in Egypt to apply to have his religion officially changed from Islam to Christianity. The other applicant was denied as well. El-Gohary has not exhausted his appeals and may file legal proceedings with an international legal body. He has another hearing with the administrative court on June 29.

“I don’t understand what I have done wrong,” El-Gohary said. “I went though the normal legal channels. I thought I was an Egyptian citizen and I would be treated as such by the Egyptian law. I went through the front doors of the legal system, not the back doors, and for that I am being threatened, chased, and I live in continuous fear.”

The National Constitution of Egypt guarantees freedom of religion unless it contradicts set practices in sharia, or Islamic law. While it is easy to change one’s religious identity from Christian to Muslim, it is impossible to do the opposite.

El-Gohary’s case was mentioned by name in a human rights report issued Thursday (March 11) by the U.S. Department of State. El-Gohary said he was pleased that his case was in the report. He said he believes it is his duty to open new doors for his fellow converts in Egypt.

“This is something I have to do,” he said. “It is a duty. I have become a symbol for Christians in Egypt.”

El-Gohary said he hopes U.S. President Barack Obama, other world leaders and international groups will pressure the Egyptian government to allow him to leave the country.

In spite of his ordeal, El-Gohary said faith is still strong and that he doesn’t regret becoming a Christian.

“I don’t regret it at all,” he continued, excitedly. “This is the narrow road that Christians have to go through and suffer to reach eternal life. I have no regrets whatsoever. We are very grateful to know Christ, and we know He’s the way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Iranian Pastor Tortured, Threatened for ‘Converting Muslims’

Arrest, imprisonment appear to be part of larger crackdown in Isfahan.

ISTANBUL, March 8 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” is being tortured in prison and threatened with execution, sources close to the case said.

State Security agents on Feb. 2 arrested the Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. A city of more than 1.5 million people, Isfahan is located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran.

According to Farsi Christian News Network, Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, recently visited her husband in prison, where she saw that he had obvious signs of torture and was in poor condition. Iranian intelligence officials told Nazanin that her husband might be executed for his alleged activities.

Issavi is the pastor of The Evangelical Church of Kermanshah in Isfahan, a 50-year-old church body affiliated with The Assemblies of God that caters to the local Assyrian population.

During the raid, State Security police detained everyone in the house, later releasing all but Issavi and the owner of the home. Security officials also seized personal property from the home. Typically in Christian arrests in Iran, security officials confiscate all documents, media materials, computers, and personal documentation.

Issavi is being held in an unmarked prison, according to FCNN.

Last month’s arrest seems to be part of an anti-Christian sweep that is taking place across Isfahan. In addition to the politically motivated detentions and executions that have taken place after June’s contested election and subsequent nation-wide political protests, it appears authorities are rounding up Christian leaders.

More Arrests

On Feb. 28, Isfahan residents Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.

Aghajary was at home with a group of other Christians when police came for her and her husband, who was not at home, according to Middle East Concern, a group that assists persecuted Christians. Police handcuffed Aghajary and, upon finding boxes of Bibles, began beating her.

The assault continued until eventually Aghajary was pepper-sprayed and removed from the scene. Her husband Shafiee was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house.

Their fate and whereabouts are still unknown.

Authorities assaulted another Christian visiting the house at the time of the raid when he protested the police action. Other Christians at the house were threatened, but no one else was arrested. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.

One regional analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Iranian government is set on crushing religious freedom within the country.

“The recent spate of church leader arrests provides clear evidence of the Iranian authorities’ desperate determination to strangle the growing church movement, along with all other forms of perceived political dissent,” he said.

February’s arrest was not the first time Shafiee has had run-ins with Iranian authorities. He has routinely been ordered to appear before police for questioning and then released. This arrest, however, was different. When family members contacted police on March 1, they were told that the couple’s case was under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Court and were turned away with no other information.

While the couple is imprisoned, family members are caring for their two teenage boys.

Frequent Harassment

Like Shafiee, Issavi has been harassed frequently by the Isfahan branch of the State Security police. He has been ordered to appear before the police many times, then arrested and interrogated. In addition, police have threatened members of his family and have broken into his house and taken items such as his computer.

On Jan. 2, 2010, police sealed the Kermanshah church and ordered Issavi not to reopen it. The church continued to have house meetings, and authorities charged Issavi with not cooperating with the government.

The Assyrians were one of the first ethnic groups in the Middle East to adopt Christianity. The existence of the Assyrian Christian community in Iran predates the existence of their Islamic counterparts by several hundred years. There are 10,000 to 20,000 Assyrian Christians living in Iran, according to unofficial estimates cited in the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State. The total Christian population is 300,000 nationwide, according to the United Nations. Most of those Christians are ethnic Armenians.

Isfahan has been the site of some of the worst religious persecution in Iran. On July 30, 2008, Abbas Amiri, a Christian man in his 60s, died in a hospital after being beaten by Isfahan security police. Authorities had arrested Amiri along with seven other men, six women and two minors during a July 17 raid on a house meeting. Four days after her husband died, Sakineh Rahnama succumbed to her injuries and a stress-related heart attack. Later, officials wouldn’t allow local Christians to hold a memorial service.

Iran, where Shia Islam is the official state religion, is known to be one of the worst countries for repression against Christians. The U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern every year since 1999 for its persecution of non-Shia Muslims, among others.

Last year, according to the International Religious Freedom Report, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities continued to get “significantly worse.” The state department placed the blame for this squarely at the feet of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s conservative media, who “intensified a campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities, and political and religious leaders” by issuing a continual stream of inflammatory statements.

“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”

Evangelical Christians were required to carry church membership cards and provide photocopies to authorities, according to the report.

“Worshippers were subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers,” it states. “The government restricted meetings for evangelical services to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Arrested Evangelists Say Muslims Colluded with Police

Anglicans say Islamists tricked them by showing up for inter-faith debate with security agents.

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 2 (CDN) — Two Christian evangelists in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, have been arrested after Muslims invited them to debate religion but instead called in security agents who charged the evangelists with illegal preaching.

Anglican evangelists Eleutery Kobelo and Cecil Simbaulanga, released on bail and facing a hearing on Feb. 11, told Compass that Christian and Muslim groups organized the inter-faith debate that was planned for a neutral venue in October of last year in the Kariakoo area of Dar es Salaam.

Kobelo said no Muslims showed up at the debate until Islamists arrived with government security agents who charged them with “using religious sermons to incite Muslims and Christians into viewing each other with suspicion.”

“This continuous intimidation by the Muslims using the police is worrying us,” he said.

Kobelo and Simbaulanga were in jail for seven days before they were released on bail on Oct. 27. At press time charges of unlawful assembly also had been brought against the two evangelists and seven other Christians, in addition to the original charges against the evangelists.

Also arrested and released last October were Christians Joseph Lima, Shadrack Mwasonya, Festo Mumba, Erastus Mwarabu, Joseph Mmari, John Chacha, and Daniel Mwakemwa.

Kobelo said he does not foresee a fair hearing on Feb. 11, but that he cannot afford a lawyer.

“Without legal representation, it’s a long shot for justice to be done in this matter,” he said. “It is very difficult for me to raise 500,000 Tanzanian shillings [US$365] at the moment.”

Kobelo said he was seriously concerned about the charge of illegal assembly, which he said contradicted their rights as citizens; Tanzania’s constitution allows for freedom of religion and assembly.

Several other cases against Christians remain before local courts in Tanzania, he said, some of which have dragged on since 2007. His case will be tried in a court in the Kariakoo area of Dar es Salaam.

“The message we are putting across is that we need prayer and advocacy for the sake of our lives,” Kobelo said.

Simbaulanga told Compass that Muslims have resorted to using state police to harass Christians because they have political power. Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete is a Muslim.

“We have had tremendous success in our ministry to Muslims, with thousands of Muslims turning to Christ,” Simbaulanga said. “So Muslims are trying to stop the movement, but nobody can stop the gospel.”

Simbaulanga was imprisoned for 62 days between December 2006 and February 2007 in Kigoma, he said. Denied bail, he was accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christ and “abusing Islam” by saying Muhammad had married a young girl. Several cases are pending against him in different courts, he said, and Muslims are constantly searching for him.

“Since 1996 I have always been on the run, trying to save my life,” Simbaulanga said.

He added that a family member who preached mainly among Muslims died in prison in 2005 due to a heart attack as a direct result of police harassment.

“There is a huge team of very sincere and committed Christians reaching out to Muslims in Tanzania, and we need lots of prayer, fellowship and financial support,” he said.

An estimated 62 percent of Tanzania’s population is Christian and 35 percent is Muslim, mostly Sunni; other religious groups make up the other 3 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Police in the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma stopped two Christian evangelists from reading excerpts from the Quran in an outdoor event on March 18, 2009, according to the state department’s 2009 International Religious Freedom Report.  Officers temporarily detained them and released them with a warning not to read the Quran during sermons to avoid antagonizing the Muslim community.

Report from Compass Direct News