Religious Club Closures in Schools Touch Nerve in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 11 (CDN) — More closures of non-Muslim religious clubs in Malaysian schools, including Christian fellowships, have surfaced since the first incident was reported on July 12.

Loh Seng Kok, central committee member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said at a July 23 press conference that the situation was “getting worse” and that the initial incident at Klang High School was not an “isolated issue.”

Loh based his assessment on complaints received by various religious society representatives. Present with Loh at the press conference were Vice-President of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia Loh Yit Phing, President of the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association Chim Siew Choon and Executive Secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia Tan Kong Beng.

The Malaysian Insider online news agency reported that Chin Fook Khiang, a parent, disclosed that the Buddhist Society and Christian Fellowship in SMK SS17 in Subang Jaya, Selangor were ordered to stop activities in January 2009 – and that it was the second time the clubs were ordered to close by education authorities since 2005.

The religious clubs were closed even though they had been in operation since before 2000, excluding them from the need for official approval. According to Circular Bill 20/2000, non-Muslim religious clubs formed after education authorities issued the circular in 2000 must obtain their approval before they are allowed. Clubs that existed before the circular was issued do not require approval.

Malaysiakini news agency on July 23 cited an unnamed retired teacher who described the situation as “very serious,” to the extent that some teachers had been transferred because they were active in Christian fellowship activities in their schools.

Loh called for a fairer treatment of non-Muslim associations in the co-curricular activities listed in the co-curriculum management guidelines issued to schools. The guidelines only allow for Islamic religious societies to operate unconditionally without requiring prior approval from the education authorities.

Several political leaders, including veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, have called on authorities to revoke outdated directives and circulars that contravene the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.


Public Outcry

Reports of non-Muslim religious club closures first surfaced when The Sun reported on July 12 that three non-Muslim religious student groups, including the Christian Union at Klang High School, were ordered closed by the Selangor education department last month.

Following the report, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Philips, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), issued a strongly worded statement seeking “immediate confirmation” and “prompt explanation” from authorities.

“Needless to say,” Phillips added, “if indeed there had been such a directive to close non-Muslim religious societies in schools or to not permit the setting up of such societies in schools, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of National Unity should not be in doubt that MCCBCHST shall protest such a policy with the strongest possible vehemence.”

Following public outcry over the closure, Alimuddin Dom, director-general of education, reportedly said that the directive was a “misunderstanding” by the Selangor Education Department and ordered a reinstatement of the affected religious clubs.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.


Church Attack Trial

Reports of the religious club closures came amid the trial of three men who have been charged with arson in the attack on Metro Tabernacle church’s building earlier this year.

Brothers Raja Muhammad Faizal Raja Ibrahim and Raja Muhammad Idzham Raja Ibrahim, along with their friend Azuwan Shah Ahmad, were charged with committing mischief by torching the church building at 11:50 p.m. on Jan. 7. Since the trial started on July 6, however, the court has acquitted Azuwan due to lack of evidence.

Both brothers deny burning the church building, though they admit to witnessing the incident. They claim they left the scene of the burning to attend a barbeque at a friend’s house. Raja Muhammad Faizal claims he sustained burns from starting a fire at the barbeque, while his brother Raja Muhammad Idzham says he was injured in the course of helping his brother take off his flaming shirt on the occasion.  

The trial is ongoing.

Metro Tabernacle Church was among several churches that came under attack in January following a controversial court ruling that allowed the Herald, a Catholic weekly, to use the word “Allah” in the multilingual publication. The Herald had challenged the ban imposed by the Home Ministry.

The court decision angered some Muslims in the country who claim the term is exclusive to Islam.

Following the high court decision, the Home Ministry filed an appeal in February and won a stay, preventing the weekly from using the word until the case was addressed in the court of appeal. To date there has been no indication when the case will be heard.

On Aug. 1, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was widely reported as saying his predecessor, Syed Hamid Albar, should not have banned the word “Allah” from being used by the Roman Catholic Church, and that the decision will continue to haunt his ministry for a very long time.

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law

Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.


‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.


Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”



Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News


At least two killed today, another succumbed to axe injuries Wednesday; 400 houses burned.

NEW DELHI, October 3 (Compass Direct News) – At least two more Christians were killed today in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district after Hindu extremists this week set fire to nearly 400 homes there and in Boudh district. A third man succumbed to axe injuries on Wednesday (Oct. 1).

Weeks after Hindu extremist violence erupted against Christians, this morning tribal peoples in Sindhipankha village killed Dushashan Majhi, a local influential Christian, first shooting him and them cutting him to pieces. Local Christian leaders reported that Majhi was a government servant working in the treasury.

The mob then turned on Sanyasi Majhi, also said to be Christian, who was with Dushashan Majhi. There were unconfirmed reports that a third victim was killed along with the other two.

A local Christian who wished to remain unnamed told Compass that after killing the two men, the assailants massacred cattle belonging to village Christians and burned Christian-owned houses. Sindhipankha is about seven kilometers (four miles) from Tumudiband.

Local news reporter Lalit Jena told Compass from Kandhamal that the attacks – which have continued unabated since Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the death of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23 even though Maoist militants admitted murdering him – involve women first ransacking the Christian homes.

“The modus operandi of the tribal mob is such that women go first and attack the Christian houses,” he said. “They ransack and rob the household’s gold and other jewelry, TVs and all that is precious. The men then follow and burn the houses. Lately it has been reported that now they are fighting among themselves for the booty.”

Jena added that tribal peoples who lived in poverty before the violence now have obtained many heads of cattle, including goats and cows, within a short span, as well as household goods.

“They may have no electricity in their villages, but one can see lots of television sets, nearly all of it looted from the Christians,” he said.


Axe Murder

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), Lalji Nayak, believed to be about 80 years old, died from axe wounds after a Hindu extremist mob attacked his village of Hrudangia the previous day. Nayak and 14 others were wounded, with Nayak struck between his neck and chest.

While three of the wounded received first-aid at a health center in Kandhamal, eight others, including Nayak and his wife Mandaki, were admitted to MKCG Medical College in Berhampur. At press time Nayak’s widow, who received an axe blow just below the ear, remained in the medical center with a serious head injury.

Local Christians in Berhampur wanted to give Lalji Nayak a Christian burial, but police did not allow it. Utkal Christian Council members B.D. Das and J.R. Patro expressed strong objections to the police action.

Nayak’s brother, Junas Nayak, was taken to Cuttack Medical College for gunshot wounds. He remained in critical condition at press time with multiple gunshot wounds, and according to Jena has a total of 13 bullets in him.

“Seven are on his left thigh, and six in his right hand, but the doctors have so far done nothing to remove them from his body, even though he has been admitted in the hospital since September 30,” Jena told Compass. “We are concerned that he may develop septic [shock or infection] because of the delay.”

In the attacks, an 8-year-old boy miraculously survived after being hit by an axe in the middle of his skull.

Two pregnant Christian women, Archana and Geeta Sahu, this week were brought from Kandhamal to Berhampur hospital, where they gave birth and were said to be out of danger.


Houses Burned

Nearly 400 houses were burned or destroyed in Orissa state’s Boudh and Kandhamal districts this week.

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), mobs set fire to dozens of houses in the Raikia area of the Kandhamal district. Yesterday the violence crossed over to neighboring Boudh district as about 100 houses were torched by mobs in at least nine villages. Worst affected was the village of Kantamal.

The burning of houses continued this morning, with more than 400 houses reported to have been either burnt or destroyed in Boudh and Kandhamal districts.

Police have reportedly arrested five people so far in connection with the burning of the houses in Boudh district.

Additional District Magistrate Mihir Chandra Mallik told reporters, that unidentified people set fire to over a hundred houses of Dalit Hindus in at least nine villages in Boudh district.

“We have set up a relief camp at Kantamal town to provide food and shelter to the people who have lost their homes,” he added.

The administration said that the motive for burning these houses was ethnic, as Kandh tribal peoples attacked Dalit Pana homes.

Area church leaders confirmed this, but one said on condition of anonymity, “First they were targeting Christian Panas only, but now even Hindu Panas are not being spared. All Hindus who have not joined the mobs in attacking Christians are also being treated in the same way as Christians.”

Both Dalit Pana houses as well as homes belonging to the Christian Pana community have been targeted in Boudh district, he said.

In Barakhama village near Kandhamal, Christians may move to the safer Daringbadi. A local pastor told Compass that Barakhama was also targeted last December, when around 400 homes belonging to Christians were burned and demolished.

“The same continues now,” he said on condition of anonymity. “The Christians love their homes, but it is just not safe to live here anymore, for the government has failed to protect us. The Christians in Barakhama have almost decided to move collectively to Daringbadi, which is at least a bit safer.”

It is estimated that around 500 Christian families will leave the village.


Nun Raped

Police have finally confirmed the rape of a nun in Kandhamal two days after the death of Hindu leader Saraswati.

A mob of around 40 men attacked the nun at K. Nuagaon village, where she and a priest, Father Thomas Chellantharayil, had taken shelter after their center was attacked. The mob allegedly dragged her and the priest to a deserted office of a Non-Governmental Organization, where she was stripped and raped. The priest was reportedly doused with gas and beaten as he tried to stop the attack on her.

Police have arrested four suspects in the rape. Juria Pradhan, 52, his 22-year-old son Kartik Pradhan, Biren Sahu, 35, and 26-year-old Tapas Patnaik were arrested in connection with the assault and rape of the 29-year-old Catholic nun on Aug. 25.

The inspector-in-charge of Baliguda police station has since been suspended in connection with the incident. The Orissa government has also ordered a probe, 39 days after the initial complaint.

District Superintendent of Police S. Praveen Kumar this week told reporters that a medical examination report confirmed that the nun was raped.

The Hindustan Times reported today that although the report was filed weeks ago, police obtained the medical examination report only two days ago following media reports and the efforts of Sister Nirmala, Superior-General of the Missionaries of Charity, who wrote to the state seeking justice.

“A police official said they were busy in maintaining law and order and could not find time to look into the case,” the national daily reported.


Attempts at Law and Order

Since Wednesday (Oct. 1), 46 people have been arrested on charges of rioting in Kandhamal district. A police official said that they had arrested more than 300 people in the past month.

Christian leaders attributed the sudden arrest of 46 people in the last two days to new state Director General of Police (DGP) Manmohan Praharaj, who took over from Gopal Chandra Nanda, who retired on Tuesday (Sept. 30).

Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad International President Ashok Singhal did not take kindly to the latest arrests.

“The new DGP is indiscriminately arresting leaders of Hindu organizations that are not related to any case,” he told reporters this week.

Nearly 53 companies of paramilitary forces have been appointed in Kandhamal district, and curfew was still imposed. The central government sent 1,000 paramilitary personnel in the form of 10 Central Reserve Police Force companies on Wednesday (Oct. 1) to Kandhamal district. Local sources said 10 more companies were expected by Sunday (Oct. 5).

The central government has come down heavily on the Orissa state government. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil wrote a strongly worded letter to Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Wednesday (Oct. 3) asking him to take effective measures and provide security for the Christian community in the state.

“Merely continuing to ask for additional forces after every few days cannot be the solution,” Patil wrote. “The state government has to implement overall strategy for creating an environment of security.”

The letter came hours after the Union Cabinet expressed grave concern over the situation in the state, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directing Patil to present a report on the situation at the next cabinet meeting.


Peace Rally in New Delhi

In New Delhi, nearly 15,000 Christians joined in a peace march in solidarity with the victims of the Orissa and Karnataka violence yesterday.

The peace march was the culmination of the week-long sit-in organized by the Christians of Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region) beginning Sept. 26 to protest atrocities on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. The peace march took place on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation.

Many national leaders, including central ministers Lalu Prasad Yadav and Oscar Fernandes, addressed the gathering at the Dharna (sit-in). Yadav, the union minister for Indian Railways, promised to personally meet with the prime minister and urgently discuss the matter. He said that he would “take up the anti-Christian violence in Parliament and debate the hatred of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] forces.”

Hindu leaders such as Swami Agnivesh addressed the peace march at Rajghat (Gandhi’s final resting place), saying that the “very killers of Mahatma Gandhi, are the same killers of Christians in Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of the country . . . The Hindutva fascists do not represent the peace-loving Hindu societies, rather they are damaging the Sanatam Dharma [eternal law] of Hinduism,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News