Tag Archives: Bhutan

How Important is Religious Freedom?


In the USA we are accustomed to say that we have religious freedom, because the First Amendment to the Constitution protects us. That amendment forbids the Congress to set up a state church and fund it by taxation. It also forbids the Congress from enacting laws interfering with free expression of religion. Our country has a legal foundation of religious freedom.


The country of Djibouti likewise has legal protection of religious freedom. In fact, the government has a history of enforcing the protections of religious freedom. The constitution allows citizens the freedom to belong to any religion, but the culture is another matter.


The state religion is Islam, and more than 99% of the population of about 700,000 is Muslim. Christians number approximately 15,000, and many of them are expatriates. Few citizens are Christians. The major challenge for Christians living in Djibouti is the cultural response to proselytizing. In keeping with Islamic teaching that conversion from Islam to any other religion is a terrible sin, family and friends exert powerful pressure against any attempt to lead a Muslim to convert to Christianity. In 2009, it was reported that a few small Christian missionary groups were active, but the public view is that Christian evangelism is an affront to Islam.


The word “proselytize” is a civil term used to talk about the work Christians call “evangelism.” Christians consider Christ’s command to make disciples and baptize new believers to be the most important work of the church. Non-Christians call this work “proselytizing.” Christian testimony to the good news that Christ died to forgive sinners and reconcile them with God is the central feature of Christian living. Christians in any culture feel compelled as a normal part of living their faith to tell non-Christians about Christ in the fervent hope that they will believe. In Djibouti, the culture forcibly resists all efforts to lead Muslims to Christian faith. The pressure is so severe that Open Doors USA reports that new believers whose former religion was Islam are fearful even to tell close family members about their conversion.


The culture of the USA is not immune to the same sort of pressure. For more than two hundred years, Christianity was the dominant religion in the country and the dominant force in the culture. Christian holidays felt natural to everyone, and Christian ideas dominated the language and the moral turf. Today, however, immigration of Muslims and growing Muslim communities around the nation make Islam a more powerful force in the culture than it was as recently as 1992. Even as Islam enjoys the First Amendment protections that have permitted it to thrive despite minority status in the culture, today Muslims are publicly advocating for increased accommodation of Islamic practices such as women wearing headscarves and the provision of footbaths and prayer rooms for students and workers. There is even pressure to prohibit behavior and speech construed as criticism of Islam or satire directed at Mohammed. These trends keep the friction between Islamic culture and Christian culture at a high level.


Christians in the US are already under secular pressure to keep their religion behind closed doors. Many secularists maintain a “live and let live” attitude toward religion. For them, Christianity and Islam are equally primitive manifestations, but they don’t see religion as a threat. However, some secularists aggressively advocate not freedom of religion but rather, freedom from religion. This element of our culture would like to remove all public evidence of religious faith and practice.


The presence of a growing number of faithful Muslims in the US population puts pressure on Christians in a different way. The cultural resistance to proselytizing in Djibouti is an expression of an important teaching of Islam . Because the US and Djibouti both have a civil law code that allows people to choose and change their religions at will, nobody in either country can be convicted in court and executed for converting from Islam to Christianity. Nevertheless, in either country, family and friends can bring severe pressure to bear on any Muslim who might convert. Muslims in the US do not generally express revulsion toward Christianity, but neither do they welcome effort to win converts from within their communities. The more Muslims in the population, the more pressure for Christians to stop trying to make disciples in obedience to the command of Christ.


Religious freedom is important. Every human being has the right, granted by God at creation, to choose whom he will serve. The culture of the USA has always been a blend of many faiths and many ethnicities, and our nation has benefited from all the different contributions. Under the stress of international tensions created by terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslim adherents, both Muslims and Christians have heightened sensitivity rooted in their very different world views. Christians teach that we are to love all people, but it is easy to forget that teaching and get caught up in pejorative rhetoric. We cannot in good conscience advocate full freedom of religions expression for all citizens if we are simultaneously engaged in vulgar name-calling instead of reasoned public discourse.


The apostle Paul wrote to the church in ancient Rome, a real crucible of cultural blending, and said, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18) It was people who were shaped by that sort of teaching who wrote the First Amendment. They did not write it in an attempt to impose Christianity on unwilling converts. They wrote it to assure that people of all faiths could live in peace together. The First Amendment pushes back against secular pressure to shut down all faith expressions or against the pressure by one religion to shut down the faith expressions of other religions or against pressure by any religion to shut down rejection of all religion by any individual. For more than two hundred years this constitutional protection has prevented the kind of oppression and even violence that plague many nations. Nigeria, for example, is beset with ferocious, deadly violence as an expression of a desire by Boko Haram to eliminate Christians from the population. Bhutan is beset with similar violence by Buddhists.


The USA has hitherto been a model for religious freedom while keeping the public dialogue about the details of that freedom open and active. Our religious freedom is an integral element of the climate of freedom in this country. The freedom to live and speak and teach our most fervent convictions has been a magnet to people all over the world who yearn for that freedom. In countries where a single religion or ideology suppresses all other ideas, the yearning for freedom drives people to extreme measures to escape suppression and flee to freedom. How important is religious freedom? It is profoundly important. The men who wrote the US Constitution believed that if a power had not been ceded to the federal government, then it remained with the states and with the people. However, in recent years the federal government has made numerous creative inroads on that constitutional principle. By means of creative rhetoric, aggressive federalists have eroded even rights specifically granted to states. The history of our Supreme Court, documented in numerous cases, makes it clear how important the First Amendment is to the climate of religious freedom in which American citizens thrive. How important is religious freedom? Ask the citizens of Nigeria and Djibouti.

The Word is truth

Sunday’s readings Acts 1:15-17. 21-26   Psalm 1    1 John 5:9-13     John 17:6-19

 Recently news was received from the tiny country of Bhutan, high in the Himalayas. The US doesn’t get much news from that part of the world, and this news was not published in the New York Times or even on the Drudge Report. It arrived via a newsletter from OpenDoors.com. The news stated that Christians were hopeful they could continue meeting in private homes while they continue to attempt to be classified as a legitimate religion in Bhutan. In this remote Himalayan country, the official religion is Buddhism. Bhutan is classified as a kingdom, but it is transitioning to a form of democracy which already includes a legislature. Early in the process of learning democracy the national legislature passed a law called The National Religious Organizations Act. Religions not named in that act are considered to be unlawful. Furthermore, no religion, even presumably the lawful ones, may engage in proselytizing, particularly if some inducement is offered to converts. Christians have difficulty making their case for legitimacy due to allegations that they offer a reward to people who agree to convert. There was no hint in the news article what the alleged reward is, but it may be that the promise of eternal life is deemed by the government to be an inducement.

From the comfortable vantage point of the USA it is difficult to imagine a country where religions must be recognized by the government in order to be allowed to exist. This problem is more common than Western Christians realize. In Africa and Asia it is not at all uncommon for there to be strict regulations for religions. In our country we can call join any religion we like, or none at all, and we meet wherever and whenever we wish. We are free to publicly argue all sorts of religious question among ourselves. Christians get upset when people want to stop using the greeting “Merry Christmas,” but that complaint looks quite lame compared to arrest, imprisonment and even torture, which are common in many countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. We can hardly imagine that there are at least 50 countries in the world where it isn’t always safe to be a Christian.

Jesus could imagine it. He knew it was coming. In fact, the night before Jesus was scourged nearly to death and nailed to a cross to finish the job, he prayed for the Christians in Bhutan, and Laos and Eritrea and China and North Korea and all the other countries where simply claiming to be a Christian is risky business.

Today’s gospel is only a small selection from John 17, a chapter sometimes labeled “Christ’s High Priestly Prayer.” Our reading does not include the words that made the prayer so far-reaching in scope, verse 20 where Jesus said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Facing misery and grief none of us can really imagine, Jesus paused to pray for the disciples he already knew would abandon him in his hour of need, and for all the people who would be their descendants in the family of faith, including you and me.

We need his prayers. We may not be at risk of arrest if our neighbors find out we are Christians, but we have received the same commission the disciples received, and the pressure from the world around us to shut up about it is immense. On this fateful night Jesus told his disciples that they could expect to be hated, and he did not pray that they would not be hated. That is our kind of prayer. We pray to be rescued. We want to prevent bad things from happening. We hope God will put up a shield around us so we don’t get hurt. It is almost shocking to read that Jesus did not pray that we be rescued. Jesus prayed instead that we be sanctified.

Jesus knew that we would face personal insults, cultural rejection and both cultural and state persecution. Yet he prayed that we would meet our attackers with sanctification. He asked us to be dedicated and consecrated and blessed, but he did not ask for us to escape our enemies.

The prayer for our sanctification builds on his words to the disciples. Jesus had given the disciples the words his Father gave to him. The disciples treasured those words the way the Psalmist in today’s reading treasured Torah. Jesus had promised that when the disciples were dragged away by their persecutors the Holy Spirit would remind them of those words and give them the right words to speak their testimony. The disciples later wrote down Jesus’ words and deeds and we have them for our nourishment in the Bible. Since Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for them, the words the Holy Spirit gives us in the time of need are weapons of love and truth. Jesus prayed that his followers under threat would be sanctified, and the history of the church confirms that this is what happens. The stories of the martyrs who suffered and died for the faith over the past 2000 years are clear evidence that the persecuted are blessed by the Holy Spirit with powerful testimony, they are consecrated to love and service to Christ above all other loyalties, but very seldom are they rescued.

In Bhutan, Christians are under threat from both the culture and the state. Yet, scorned culturally and persecuted by their neighbors and by the government, they continue to live their faith and give their testimonies. We can be thankful that we do not need to worship in secret and hide our religion when we apply for work or buy a house. We can be thankful that nobody is likely to take our Bibles away from us if we show them in public. The story of Bhutan Christians ought to inspire us to emulate their courage when we are the object of scathing insults on the internet, or when our employers forbid us to say, “Merry Christmas.” Jesus prayed for us to be strong in the world and to be prepared for its hatred, and to be ready with a response that is loving and truthful. May we live in deep relationship with Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit in order to be ready to respond to the onslaught of cultural and legal attacks on Christianity with a sanctified testimony.