Why Bhutan’s Royalists Fear Christianity

Social, political factors behind country’s reluctance to allow Christianity to grow

THIMPHU, Bhutan, February 1 (CDN) — Bars, pubs and discos have become legal in Bhutan – a cause of concern for the older generation – but construction of worship buildings other than Buddhist or Hindu temples is still prohibited.

The prohibition remains in force even though Christians abide by Bhutan’s codes of conduct, speaking the Dzongkha language as well as the Nepali language at church gatherings, and wearing the national dress.

The National Assembly of Bhutan banned the practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions through edicts in 1969 and in 1979. But Christians do meet for Sunday worship, with attendance of more than 100 Christians in an underground church not unusual.

Why are Christians seen as a greater threat to the culture of the nation than the “democracy disco culture,” as one government official described the emerging subculture among the Bhutanese youth? It is believed that Christianity will create religious tensions in the country.

“There are reasons why Christianity is not being tolerated in the country,” said a former high government official who requested anonymity. “Look at the communal tensions in India and Nepal. Christianity can divide the Bhutanese society as well.”

He mentioned two incidents that appeared in the Bhutanese press last year, one in which 13 Christians allegedly hanged a woman they had accused of being a witch, and a suicide by a Hindu man who reportedly left a note saying his Christian wife and children were pressuring him to convert.

Christians here said these were isolated incidents that they strongly condemned.

“A majority of believers in Bhutan are not educated and are from lower economic backgrounds,” said the pastor of an underground church. “When open preaching is not allowed, this is what happens.”

Sound Christian teaching remains lacking, he said. There is a tremendous need for good Christian teaching and general education among the Christians in Bhutan, said the pastor.

“But little can be done given the restrictions we face here.”

Christians are only allowed to pray if someone is sick among their acquaintances, he added.

The government also fears that Christianity could cause societal tensions because of the general misconception that Christians lure others to the faith with money; converts are viewed with suspicion, said a government official on condition of anonymity.

“There should be one religion in one nation,” said the official, adding that religious freedom should be allowed only after educating people.

Threat from Within

Bhutanese officials are no strangers to religious conflict.

“You must also understand that the kind of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan is a minority sect within the two Buddhist divisions,” said the former government official.

A majority of Buddhists in Bhutan practice Vajrayāna Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, and belong to the larger Mahayana sect, one of the two major divisions of the religion along with the Theravada sect.

Theravada Buddhism has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries, including Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mahayana is practiced in a few East Asian countries, including Japan.

Unlike Theravada, which is more individualistic in its motivation, Mahayana Buddhism involves an aspiration to achieve enlightenment not only for one’s own sake, but for the sake of all “sentient” beings.

“There is a perceived threat to the Buddhist sect in Bhutan from the more powerful Theravada division,” said the source, without divulging more about the clash within Buddhism. “In such a scenario, how can you expect the government to willingly open doors to Christianity, which too is a threat?”

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, Christians are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. Around 75 percent of the people practice Buddhism, and roughly 22 percent are Hindus, mostly of Nepali origin.

Monarchy and Buddhism

Religion is so closely linked to the monarchy in Bhutan that one cannot exist without the other.

The national flag of Bhutan, which consists of a white dragon over a yellow and orange background, also has religion in it. While the yellow half represents civil and political powers of the King, the orange signifies monastic traditions of Buddha’s teachings.

The religious link is protected in the new constitution, which was adopted in March 2008. Article 2 notes that the dual powers of religion and politics shall be unified in the person of the king, “who, as a Buddhist, shall be the upholder of the Chhoe-sid,” the traditional dual system of governance characterized by the sharing of power between the religious and political heads of the country.

Given that the king embodies religious and political authority, the common people worship him.

Additionally, Buddhism is woven into the national fabric. Bhutan is the only country in the world that employs a “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) equation to measure its people’s level of happiness, and the GNH assumes that all citizens are Buddhist. Respondents to the GNH survey are asked questions concerning “spiritual activities like meditation and prayers, and consideration of karmic effects in daily life.”

The introduction of democracy in Bhutan did not involve disturbing the religious and cultural status quo. While former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006, brought democracy to Bhutan without any demand for it, people believe his intentions were far from transforming the country into a full democracy.

It is believed that the political turmoil in neighboring Nepal partly influenced King Singye Wangchuck’s decision to make the country, at least on paper, a constitutional monarchy after over 100 years of absolute monarchy. A decade-long civil war led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist – which took more than 12,000 lives – is believed to be behind the abolition of the royal parliamentary system and the adoption of a socialist republic in Nepal. In 2006 the then-king of Nepal, Gyanendra, agreed to relinquish sovereign power to the people.

All sources in Bhutan confirmed that the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008), was still the supreme ruler. Perhaps this is why both the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (Bhutan Peace and Prosperity) Party and the opposition People’s Democratic Party are royalists.

Pictures of kings of Bhutan are found everywhere in the country – in homes, shops, hotels, underground churches and on street walls. Many large posters with the kings’ pictures carrying the inscription “Kings of our Hearts” can be seen along the streets. Even public buses have “Our Kings Forever” painted on them.

“But you cannot expect things to change overnight,” said the former government official. “It’s not wise to allow development without any bridle. Things are improving slowly.

Added an optimistic source, “Freedom in the real sense of the word and in all spheres is bound to come to Bhutan. It’s just a matter of time.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, said he was shocked at the furor that arose after he told an audience earlier this year that he thought it “seems unavoidable” that some accommodation for Islamic sharia law would be implemented in Britain. However, Williams’ statements evidently were prophetic, as a report in the Sunday Times has revealed that the Islamic law is already operating in Britain, not only in domestic disputes, but also in criminal cases, reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

The Times said this weekend that the government had officially accepted the existence of sharia law courts to officiate in Muslim civil cases. The rulings of a network of five sharia courts, in London, Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester with the network’s headquarters in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, are now enforceable “with the full power of the judicial system, through the county courts or High Court.”

Sheikh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi, a barrister and head of the Muslim Action Committee, told the Times that the Arbitration Act 1996 allows rulings by his Muslim Arbitration Tribunal to be enforced by county and high courts.

“The act allows disputes to be resolved using alternatives like tribunals. This method is called alternative dispute resolution, which for Muslims is what the sharia courts are,” he said.

Siddiqi said he expected the courts to handle a greater number of “smaller” criminal cases in coming years as more Muslim clients approach them. “All we are doing is regulating community affairs in these cases,” said Siddiqi.

The Times said that these Muslim courts started operating in August 2007 and have dealt with more than 100 cases, ranging from Muslim divorce and inheritance cases as well as six cases of domestic violence, normally a criminal procedure under British law. The Times quoted Inayat Bunglawala, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, who said that since Jewish tribunals operate in Britain, parity should be given to Islamic courts.

Dominic Grieve, the opposition’s shadow home secretary, told the Times that courts operating in criminal and family law cases outside the regular system would be “unlawful.” “British law is absolute and must remain so,” he said.

Melanie Philips, writing on her blog at the Spectator, wrote that “confusion abounds” over the report, because there is “nothing new here at all” and said that the story is “overheated and misleading.” Decisions of sharia courts, she said, have always been enforceable under the Arbitration Act.

But, she said, this does not “dispel the serious concern about the spread of sharia law and the scope of these courts.” Philips is the author of “Londonistan”, a book that examines the incursions of violent Islamic extremists into British society with the assistance of British government and courts.

She said the comparison between Islamic courts and Jewish tribunals were misleading, since the latter operate completely within the framework of British law and do not seek to set up an alternate judicial system.

Moreover, she said, “given the inferior status of Muslim women under sharia, any sharia arbitration in respect of domestic violence can hardly be viewed with equanimity.”

“The key point,” she said, “is that sharia law is not compatible with English law or the principles of equality and human rights that it embodies. The result … is that Britain is allowing the development of a de facto parallel legal system in Britain, thus destroying our society’s cardinal principle of one law for all.”

She added, “Indeed, if this continues Britain will break up as a unitary state governed by one law for all … This is the way a society fractures – and then goes under.”

Damian Thompson, the editor of the Catholic Herald, wrote on his blog at the Daily Telegraph website that he not only agreed with Dominic Grieve that the idea of a parallel Muslim system of law was “unlawful”, but that it is an “outrage.”

“There’s something creepy about the way the police allow sharia ‘courts’ to persuade women to withdraw allegations against their husbands.”

A BBC Radio 4 report found that the cases covered by these tribunals are not restricted to domestic disputes. Radio 4 quoted a Somalian youth worker who lives in London who said that in one case a group of Somali youths were arrested on suspicion of stabbing another Somali teenager. The victim’s family told the police it would be settled out of court and the suspects were released on bail. The matter was considered settled when an unofficial “court” ordered the assailants to compensate the victim’s family. Scotland Yard said they had no record of the incident.

In his book Islam in Britain, Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, wrote, “Sharia courts now operate in most larger cities, with different sectarian and ethnic groups operating their own courts that cater to their specific needs according to their traditions.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph