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

Christian Assaulted in Orissa State, India

Extremists in Kandhamal vowed to kill a Christian around date of Hindu leader’s death.

NEW DELHI, September 9 (CDN) — Suspected Hindu nationalists in an area of Orissa state still tense from 2008 anti-Christian violence beat a Catholic father of seven until he fell unconscious on Aug. 20, the 47-year-old victim said.

Subhash Nayak told Compass that four unidentified men assaulted him as he made his way home to Laburi village from the hamlet of Kapingia in Kandhamal district. Hindu extremists in Kandhamal district killed more than 100 people in several weeks of attacks following the murder of Hindu extremist leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati.

An 80-year-old monk who for decades spearheaded the anti-conversion movement in Orissa’s tribal-dominated areas, Saraswati was shot dead on Aug. 23, 2008. Area church leaders such as Biswajit Pani of Khurda told Compass that villagers in Laburi have planned to attack at least one Christian around that date every year.

Nayak said the assailants left him for dead.

“I could not see their faces as it was very dark, and they tried to poke my eyes with their sticks,” said Nayak, still in pain. “They stomped on my chest with their feet and hit me relentlessly till I fell unconscious. They left me thinking I was dead.”

Nayak said that he was returning from work at a construction site in Kapingia when, about a kilometer from his home in Laburi, a stone hit him. Four men appeared and began beating him.

The stone struck him in the forehead between 7 and 8 in the evening as he was riding his bicycle, he said.

“As I fell on the road with sharp pain, figuring out who hit me, four people came and started to hit me with wooden sticks,” Nayak said.

Asserting that no one had any personal enmity toward him, Nayak said that Hindu extremists in Kandhamal district have been telling people, “We destroyed and burned their houses and churches, which they have rebuilt, but now we will attack their lives, which they cannot rebuild.”

Pani and another area Christian, retired school teacher Tarsish Nayak, said they also had heard Hindu nationalists spreading this message.

Nayak recalled that a year ago, while returning to his village at night around the anniversary of Saraswati’s murder, he heard someone whispering, “Here he comes … He is coming near,” at which point he fled.

“There were people hiding, seeking to attack me,” he said.

Saraswati, a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), was assassinated by a Maoist group, but Christians were falsely blamed for it. The ensuing anti-Christian attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions. Violence also erupted in Kandhamal district during Christmas week of 2007, killing at least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches.

The area where Nayak lives and works was one of the worst-hit in the anti-Christian attacks that took place after Saraswati’s assassination.

After regaining consciousness, Nayak strained to stand up and felt blood dripping down his cheeks, he said. His bicycle was lying at a distance, its front light broken.

Nayak said he was not sure how long he lay unconscious on the road, but it was 11 p.m. by the time he managed to walk home. He said it was only by God’s grace that he “slowly, slowly reached home.”

“‘I am dying,’ were my words as I entered home and fell unconscious again,” Nayak said.

His wife Mamta Nayak, two of his children, his parents and eight villagers carried the unconscious Nayak on a cot three kilometers before getting him into an auto-rickshaw and on to Raikia Government Hospital at 1 a.m.

A doctor was summoned from his home to attend to Nayak, who required stitches on the right side of his forehead. He sustained injuries to his right knee, face, an area near the ribs and chest, and he still has difficulty chewing food, Nayak said.

“I feel nausea and pain in my head as I move my jaw,” he said.

Feeling weak from blood loss, Nayak received a saline solution intravenously for eight days in the hospital. He said he earns very little and had to sacrifice some of his valuables to pay the medical expenses. The doctor advised him to undergo a head scan, which he has eschewed as he cannot afford it, he said.

Pani told Compass that Nayak has refused to file any complaints with police out of fear of retaliation.

Nayak explained, “The police will not take any action, and we have seen in the past that I will be threatening my life by doing so.”

Report from Compass Direct News