The link below is to an article that reports on women having toes removed or shortened to enable them to wear high heels – is it just me, or is this just another example of out of control vanity?
In Japan women are increasingly turning to diapers to save time. Time is saved by not having to go to the bathroom. I sure hope this isn’t something that catches on in Australia.
Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.
DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.
The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.
Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.
Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.
“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”
Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.
Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.
Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.
The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.
The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.
In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.
On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.
USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.
David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.
Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.
A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.
One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)
Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians
NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.
Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.
Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.
“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.
The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.
“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.
“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.
In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.
According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.
There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.
Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.
It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.
In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.
In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.
Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.
Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.
Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.
“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”
An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.
“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
Some Christians, however, remained cautious.
“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.
La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.
For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.
Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.
In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.
It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.
Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.
Report from Compass Direct News
Elsewhere on island off East Africa, Christians prohibited from worshipping at university.
NAIROBI, Kenya, August 19 (CDN) — Christian university students on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, a predominantly Muslim area off the coast of East Africa, have been denied the right to worship, while on another part of the isle a Christian leader has been jailed.
Sources said evangelist Peter Masanja, a resident of Zanzibar’s southeastern town of Paje, was arrested by security agents sometime in early August. Earlier this year Masanja, a member of the Pentecostal Church in Zanzibar, would invite Christians to his house, as he had made part of his land available for church activities. Area Muslims interpreted it as plans to establish another church there, the sources said.
The rumor angered local residents, and they vowed to prohibit any Christian activities, the sources said.
“It was only after her husband failed to return home that Masanja’s wife knew that there was something amiss,” said a source who requested anonymity. “After several days of searching, reports reached the wife that Masanja had been arrested and imprisoned in Kilimani cell.”
Pastors from Tanzania’s Zanzibar Island sought to meet with prison authorities about Masanja’s arrest, but officials informed them that the person in charge of the prison was away on official business, said Bishop Obeid Fabian, chairman of an association of congregations known as the Fraternal Churches.
“We are asking for prayers for him and his family, that he would be released,” Fabian said.
At Zanzibar University, a private school in Tunguu 18 kilometers (12 miles) from Zanzibar Town, Islamic administrators have denied Christian students freedom of worship while retaining that constitutional right for Muslims, said Samson Zuberi, Christian Union students coordinator.
Three Christian Union student leaders have protested to school officials and threatened to go to court over the discrimination, he said. Although freedom of worship among Christians has long been restricted at the university, the decision to ban it completely caused an outcry. The vice-chancellor’s office on Dec. 28, 2009 issued the order forbidding Christian students from conducting their affairs and meetings on the school campus.
Numbering about 100 at a university with more than 2,500 students, the Christian students say they have felt the administration increasingly discriminating against them. There are two mosques at the university, which is sponsored by an Islamic charity, Dar el Uman Charitable Association, registered in Geneva, Switzerland, according to the school’s Web site.
In an April 12 circular, university Dean of Students Mavua H. Mussa warned those defying worship regulations to seek other learning institutions, saying that the ban on religious activities in lecture theaters, halls of residence or anywhere else on campus was absolute.
Students said the ban violates sections 19(1) and 20(1) of the Zanzibar Constitution of 1984, which provide for freedom of association, including religious groups, free of government control. Articles 19(1) (2) and 20(1) of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania of 1977 provide for the same freedom, they said.
Fabian told Compass by telephone that the students will seek counsel from Christian students at universities in Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, Tanzania.
“We have advised that before they take the case to court, the three Christian Union leaders should travel to get counsel from their fellow students at the universities of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, especially the Christian law students, to get the correct interpretation of the Tanzanian constitution on the right of worship,” Fabian said.
He added that the students – Zuberi, regional Christian Union Student Chairman Ronald R. Urassa and Christian Union Student Secretary Neema Alex Langalli – need to raise US$800 each for the travel.
Similarly, the dress code at the university has caused tensions, sources said, as officials have threatened to expel female Christian students if they do not wear a veil and headscarf, or the Buibui and Hijab. University regulations state that, “For a female dressing, the clothes must cover from head to an ankle.”
Some of the lecturers have put female Christian students out of class if they do not wear the required Islamic dress, sources said.
They also noted that during the current Islamic month of Ramadan, a period of fasting by day, life for Christian students becomes difficult as university regulations forbid them to cook for themselves, and all cafeterias on or near university campuses are closed. The location of the school makes it difficult for Christian students to find meals outside the university cafeteria.
Even if they remain off campus, the conditions and practices of landlords discriminate against Christians, the sources said.
In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, churches face numerous challenges. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.
Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.
Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania might dominate them, and tensions have persisted.
Report from Compass Direct News
Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.
MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”
After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.
This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.
Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.
Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.
While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.
In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.
According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.
“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”
The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.
“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”
The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”
“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.
Religion Excluded from Rights
The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”
Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.
“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”
Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”
He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.
“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”
Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”
Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.
“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”
Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.
Politics of Religion
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.
The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.
In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.
“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.
That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.
When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.
Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.
Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.
To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.
Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.
Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.
Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”
Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”
Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”
As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.
How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?
“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.
Report from Compass Direct News
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
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
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
Karnataka, India, June 30 (CDN) — Hindu extremists on June 23 beat two pastors, seriously injuring them in Chandapura, Anekal. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that after pastors Shidu Kurialose and Nithya Vachanam of Bethel Assembly of God Church conducted a Christian meeting in a home, armed extremists attacked them at a tea stall. The extremists accused the pastors of forceful conversion and started beating them with iron rods. Both pastors sustained serious injuries and were admitted in a local hospital. No police complaint was filed.
Tamil Nadu – After opposing a Christian convention on June 17-20, Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on June 22 burned at least seven vehicles belonging to Jesus With Us Pentecostal Church in Mathikere, Hosur. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the incident started when the extremists on June 18 called on local authorities to revoke the organizers’ permit and convinced local Hindu shop owners to close their stores. Police arrested five Hindu extremists in connection with anti-Christian violence. Subsequently, under police protection, Christians moved their meeting to another area eight kilometers (five miles) from the original site.
Uttar Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh disrupted the prayer meeting of the Jesus Church (Isha Garh) on June 21 in Firozabad and accused the pastor of forceful conversion. A source said the extremists forced their way into the church building and manhandled Pastor Breymond Shastri. The next day the extremists went to newspaper Amar Ujala with the accusation, and the local periodical published a false report that Pastor Shatri was taking part in forceful conversion activities. Area Christian leaders said no forceful conversion was taking place. The extremists warned the pastor he would be harmed if he continued to conduct worship services.
Uttar Pradesh – About eight Hindu extremists on June 20 disrupted the Sunday worship service of Apostolic Christian Assembly Church in Gorakpur. After shouting anti-Christian slogans outside the church building, the extremists stormed in and ranted against Christianity, putting a halt to the meeting as they accused the pastor of forceful conversion. Police arrived and chased the extremists away. At press time the extremists were still issuing threats to the pastor, warning him of harm if he continued conducting worship meetings, the Evangelical Fellowship of India reported. Police have provided protection to the pastor.
Karnataka – Based on a complaint by Hindu extremists against Christians of forceful conversion, Karnataka officials closed down a Christian orphanage on June 16 in Karwar. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that state officials visited a school at the orphanage and issued a closure order to Spring of Hope Orphanage and Vocational Arts Training Centre, which has 61 tribal students. The home has been functioning for four years in an area long occupied by Siddi tribal Christians. At press time area Christian leaders were taking steps to resolve the conflict.
New Delhi – Suspected Islamic extremists beat an Afghani Christian, seriously injuring him, on June 14 in Malviya Nagar. A Christian source said two Islamic extremists on a motorbike beat Hamid Ullah on his head as he was walking home. The Christian fell on his stomach and the extremists continued to beat him, denigrating his faith, calling him “pagan” and warning him to convert to Islam or face harm. Afghani Christians have been facing warnings, threats and attacks in different areas of New Delhi, the source said, and the advocacy department of the Evangelical Fellowship of India has taken steps to help them.
Karnataka – After Hindu extremists from the Sri Ram Sena (Lord Ram Army) on June 9 attacked Pastor Vasanthe Kathedar of New India Church (NIC), police arrested him for allegedly creating communal disharmony and disrupting the peace – that is, practicing his Christian faith among Hindus – in Okkere, Belgaum. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the incident took place at the house of a NIC member where the Christians were meeting. The assault on the pastor lasted for about an hour and, as is customary in India, when police arrived they arrested and charged the victim of the crime.
Orissa – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on June 9 accused three Christians of forceful conversion and attacked them in Deogarh, Sambalpur. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the incident took place when Hindu Biranchi Kistotta invited Pastor Lamuel Panaik, Pastor N. Philemon and Sudhir Kumar to celebrate the healing of his son, for whom Pastor Panaik had prayed. People of various faiths attended the celebration, including Hindu members of Kistotta’s family. At about 12:30 p.m., seven Hindu extremists accompanied by media personnel suddenly arrived and called Pastor Patnaik to come out of his house. When the pastor refused, the extremists rushed in and forcefully pulled out the three Christians. The extremists accused them of forceful conversion and beat Sudhir Kumar while manhandling the two pastors. Police arrived and questioned those present about whether forceful conversion was taking place, and people came forward to say that the Christians were innocent. Police took the three Christians to the police station as a safety measure, however, and arranged for their return home at 10:30 p.m. No police complaint was filed as the Christians chose to forgive the attackers.
Orissa – Hindu extremists on June 8 brutally attacked a Christian and threatened to kill him in Nuapada. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that six Hindu extremists armed with daggers and sticks broke into the house of Bhakta Bivar, 19, while his parents were at a prayer meeting. The extremists verbally abused Bivar for his faith and started beating him. They dragged him to a Hindu temple, where they told him to deny Jesus as they continued to beat him, forced on him food offered to idols and threatened to kill him and his parents if they did not convert to Hinduism. The extremists burned four Bibles they had taken from his home and, forcing him to wear a saffron garment symbolic of the Hindu religion, dragged him out to the street, falsely announcing that he had returned to Hinduism. The extremists left after threatening to kill him if he continued to believe in Christ, as they have forbidden the existence of Christianity in the area. Following the filing of a complaint with police, five Hindu extremists were arrested the next day.
Karnataka – Police on June 7 arrested two Christian women after Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh disrupted Sunday worship in Bovi Colony, Chickmagalur. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, the extremists barged into a church’s worship service and accused Kadaur Devaki and a pastor identified only as Lalathamma of creating communal disharmony and disrupting the peace. Police soon arrived and arrested the two women for “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings” and sent them to Hassan Jail.
Tamil Nadu – Hindu extremists from a religious and cultural organization formed to defend the Hindu religion, the Hindu Munnani, demolished a church building under construction on May 28 near Rameshwaram. Catholic sources said the demolition came after a local Hindu Munnani leader identified only as Ramamurthy filed a complaint against construction of the building. Government officials sided with the Hindu extremists, claiming that the one church building, St. Anthony church, already existed and that a new one would create tensions. The structure was demolished, leaving area Christians shocked and shaken.
Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal attacked a Christian school program from May 20 to May 29 in Jagbalput, beating a pastor and two teachers on May 27. Beaten were Pastor Rahul Pant and two teachers from Mission India. A source told Compass the extremists accused the Christians of forceful conversion and of using a government school for the Christian program, called Children Development Program (CDP), without permission. They also accused the Christians of distributing books containing conversion activities (biblical narratives). The extremists took the Christians to a police station, where officers questioned them. The Christians said they had permission from the village head, but the assailants said they need permission from the local collector. The parties reached an agreement wherein the Christians were forced to stop the CDP in the government school until they obtain the collector’s permission. The Christians were released without charges.
Karnataka – Opposing a church leader for conducting prayer meetings in his house, Karnataka police on May 26 verbally abused pastor Shiva Kumar and warned him not to conduct further Christian meetings in Mysore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at about 7 p.m. police summoned Pastor Kumar and detained him until 10:30 p.m. Police forcefully obtained a written statement from the pastor, took his photograph and warned him not to conduct any Christian activities in the area.
Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists accused Pastor T. Paul of forceful conversion and beat him on May 24 in Narayanpet, Mahabubnagar, seriously injuring him. The All India Christian Council reported the Hindu extremists stopped Pastor Paul as he returned home in a Jeep after conducting a worship meeting. The extremists stopped his vehicle and dragged him out before beating him and accusing him of forceful conversion. The pastor received hospital treatment for internal injuries. Area Christian leaders have asked police to arrest the assailants.
Report from Compass Direct News
Upset with their objections to discrimination, factory owner uses police to beat them.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 12 (CDN) — Police illegally detained three Christians on false charges of alcohol possession in Sialkot last week at the request of their Muslim employer.
The men – garment factory workers Atif Masih, Kamran Masih and Naveed Gill – said they had objected to their boss demanding they work on Sundays. Factory owner Rana Ejaz promptly accused them of selling alcohol, which is forbidden to Muslims in Pakistan and illegal to sell without a permit.
On May 4 the station house officer of Paka Garah, Sialkot, arrested the three Christians even though Ejaz had filed neither a First Information Report nor registered a written complaint, the Christians said.
“We went to the factory for work at 9 a.m. on May 4, and at around 11 a.m. we were arrested by the SHO [station house officer],” Atif Masih said. “We were severely beaten and asked to give a false statement that we sold alcohol.”
Authorities released them after three days when local human rights groups charged that they had been illegally detained.
Paka Garah police SHO Zulfiqar Ali refused to comment after their release. Previously he had said, “We arrested the three from the factory, and they confessed that they sell alcohol.” Parents of the three Christians denied the charge, asserting that their sons had been falsely accused.
Factory owner Rana Ejaz reportedly said, “I did all this on the advice of the SHO, Zulfiqar, so that I could terminate the Christian workers.”
Kamran Masih said Ejaz seemed to object to the crosses the Christians wore since they began work at the factory last year.
“He didn’t say it, but he used to look at the cross with strange looks,” Kamran Masih said. “Then since February, he said that no one will be allowed to wear a cross at work.”
In March Ejaz began demanding that only the Christian employees come to work on Sundays, Kamran Masih said.
“No other Christians raised any voice,” he said. “We were the only ones to stand up and ask for permission to go to church on Sundays, but he threatened us with dire consequences.”
Their local priest, the Rev. Illyas Mall, said he had known the three families for more than 40 years.
“None of their family members have ever been involved in anything illegal,” he said.
Likewise a friend of the three Christians who spoke on condition of anonymity said they had never touched alcohol and were detained only because Ejaz is a good friend of the SHO, “so he got them illegally detained and tortured.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Al Shabaab extremists threaten widow of slain pastor of underground church.
NAIROBI, Kenya, January 26 (CDN) — Islamic extremists shot the leader of an underground church to death outside the capital city of Somalia this month and have threatened to kill his wife, his tearful widow told Compass.
Having learned that he had left Islam to become a Christian, Somali militants from the Islamic extremist al Shabaab murdered 41-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Ali at about noon on Jan. 1, Amina Ibrahim Hassan said.
He was killed sometime after leaving his home in Hodan, on the outskirts of Mogadishu, she said. She and other family members were not immediately aware that he had been killed.
“We waited for him that day, but he did not turn up,” said Hassan, who has since fled to Nairobi. “The following day, on Jan. 2, I was informed by the fellowship that my husband had been killed.”
Ali led an underground church. Christian sources said members of al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda terrorists, had been monitoring Ali and his wife for indications that they had left Islam.
Ali had organized New Year’s Day festivities for Christians to take place in Medina, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) outside of Mogadishu. Al Shabaab extremists killed him after word of the planned party leaked to them, Hassan said.
Hassan, who worked for a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) before leaving the country, said she received threatening calls from members of al Shabaab on Jan. 3.
“We know who you are working for,” Hassan said one extremist told her. “We also know your home and that you are a follower of the Christians, and we are going to kill you the way we killed your husband.”
Aware of the Islamic extremist militia’s determination to carry out their threats, Hassan called a relative in Nairobi and informed him of the death of her husband and her intention to flee to Nairobi.
She set out for Kenya early the next morning by bus with her only child, 2-year-old son Abdi Asis Mohammed Ahmed. They reached Ifo, one of the Dadaab refugee camps on the Kenya side of the border, on Jan. 11. She stayed there for a few days before continuing on, arriving at Nairobi on Jan. 20.
“I am thankful that I was able to reach Kenya safely having lost everything – my husband and property,” Hassan said.
Al Shabaab extremists have been monitoring Somalis who work with NGOs for signs that they have embraced Christianity, Christian sources said.
Ali came to faith in Christ under the influence of his late uncle, Ali Mohammed Nur, who died in 2000 at the age of 70. Ali, who had worked as a taxi driver, completed secondary education and converted to Christianity the same year his uncle died in 2000. He was baptized in 2005.
Hassan said she converted to Christianity in 2005, was baptized in 2006 and married Ali in 2007. She worked for various NGOs in Somalia before fleeing the war-torn country.
In 2009 Islamic militants in Somalia sought out at least 15 Christians, including women and children, and killed them for their faith in a campaign to rid the country of all non-Muslims. On Nov. 14, Islamic extremists controlling part of Mogadishu executed a 23-year-old Christian they accused of trying to convert a 15-year-old Muslim to Christianity, according to Christian sources. Members of al Shabaab had taken Mumin Abdikarim Yusuf into custody on Oct. 28 after the 15-year-old boy reported him to the militants.
Before Yusuf was executed by two gunshots to the head, reports filtered in that he had been badly beaten and his fingers broken as the Islamists tried to extract incriminating evidence against him and information about other Christians. A source later learned that Yusuf’s body showed signs of torture; his front teeth were gone, and some of his fingers were broken, the source said.
On Oct. 19 in Galkayo, in Somalia’s autonomous Puntland region, three masked members of another militant Islamist group in Somalia killed a Somali woman who declined to wear a veil as prescribed by Muslim custom. Sources said members of the comparatively “moderate” Suna Waljameca group killed Amina Muse Ali, 45, in her home; she had said members of the group had long monitored her movements because they suspected she was a Christian.
Suna Waljameca is considered “moderate” in comparison with al Shabaab, which it has fought for control over areas of Somalia; it is one of several Islamic groups in the country championing adoption of a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Along with al Shabaab, another group vying for power is the Hisbul Islam political party.
Somali Christians are in danger from both extremist groups and Somali law. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.
On Sept. 28, a leader of Islamic extremist al Shabaab militia in Lower Juba identified only as Sheikh Arbow shot to death 46-year-old Mariam Muhina Hussein in Marerey village after discovering she had six Bibles, according to Christian sources. On Sept. 15, al Shabaab militants shot 69-year-old Omar Khalafe at a checkpoint they controlled 10 kilometers (six miles) from Merca after discovering that he was transporting Bibles, sources said.
On Aug. 18 al Shabaab extremists shot and killed 41-year-old Ahmed Matan in Bulahawa, near the Somali border with Kenya, according to Christian sources. In Mahadday Weyne, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Mogadishu, al Shabaab Islamists on July 20 shot to death another convert from Islam, Mohammed Sheikh Abdiraman, sources said. On Feb. 21 al Shabaab militants beheaded two young boys in Somalia because their Christian father refused to divulge information about a church leader.
The extremists also reportedly beheaded seven Christians on July 10; Reuters reported that they were killed in Baidoa for being Christians and “spies.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.
THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.
Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.
There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.
Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.
An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.
If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.
“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”
The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.
The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”
Still a Monarchy
Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”
His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.
Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.
“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”
To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.
“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”
The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.
“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”
Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”
The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.
According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.
Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.
“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”
His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”
The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.
According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.
In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.
The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.
In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.
Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.
In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”
The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.
The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.
The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.
But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”
What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.
The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.
What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”
Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”
According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”
“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”
Report from Compass Direct News