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 


Police ignore arrest order, but lawyers hopeful 13-year-old can be returned to parents.

ISTANBUL, February 26 (Compass Direct News) – After months of legal deadlock, lawyers in Pakistan said they have new hope they can restore to her family a 13-year-old Christian girl who was kidnapped and forced to marry a Muslim.

Saba Masih might be returned to her family, the lawyers said, if they can legally maneuver around Pakistani policemen who have stonewalled their attempts to pursue a kidnapping case against the captors. On Saturday (Feb. 21) a Pakistani judge charged the suspects with kidnapping for the first time in the seven-month legal ordeal.

“The judiciary is one thing, the police are another,” said Arfan Goshe, a lawyer who has taken on the custody case. “I will prove [the three accused men] kidnapped Saba so the judiciary will force the police to arrest them.”

On Saturday (Feb. 21), Judge Mohammed Ilyas issued a First Instance Report (FIR) at a subordinate court in the Punjabi village of Chawk Munda against Amjad Ali, Muhammad Ashraf and Muhammed Arif Bajwa on charges of kidnapping, trespassing, and threatening the Masih family.

Attorney Goshe, a Muslim, said the three kidnappers trespassed onto the property of Yunus Masih, the father of Saba, and threatened to kill his family and burn down his house in late December.

The decision to file kidnapping charges marks a major shift of momentum in the case. In previous hearings judges have nearly always sided with the kidnappers – based on either dubious evidence or threats from local Islamists – in the Muslims’ legal battle to retain custody of Saba and her 10-year-old sister Aneela. A court ruled the younger daughter could return to her family last September.

The two girls were kidnapped in June 2008 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba was married to Ali the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam. The court granted them custody in July.

At nearly all the hearings, Muslim groups protested outside the courtroom against lawyers attempting to return Saba to her Christian parents. A traditional interpretation of Islamic law (sharia) does not allow non-Muslim parents to have custody of Muslim children.

In spite of the judge’s decision to begin procedures for kidnapping charges, Chawk Munda police have not followed through with the FIR by arresting the three Muslims. Today the judge contacted the local police station and ordered officers to register the kidnapping case against the three men, Goshe told Compass. He said he hopes police will file the FIR within the next few days.

“The police are favoring the accused party at this time,” he said. “Everybody knows [Saba] was abducted, and that the culprits are trying to threaten minorities everywhere.”

But others are less optimistic the kidnappers will be arrested. Khalid Raheel, Saba’s uncle, said he believes he may have to bribe the police. They would likely demand around 20,000 Pakistani rupees (US$250), he said.

Uncooperative police had also blocked the legal team’s efforts to register charges before Saturday’s ruling. As a result, the Christian family’s lawyers filed a private complaint to the subordinate court of Chawk Munda, sidestepping the need for a police investigation to file charges that would be necessary at a normal criminal court.

Goshe said the court is finally complying after months of deadlock because the multiple charges against the kidnappers cannot be ignored. Previous court hearings focused on Saba’s alleged conversion to Islam to mitigate the charges of her kidnapping, but the judiciary could not ignore the three suspects’ subsequent crimes of trespassing and attempting to burn down the Masihs’ house, he said.

In January, lawyer Akbar Durrani of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) filed an appeal to register kidnapping charges against Ali, the husband of Saba. Durrani had tried to register these charges in December, but Judge Malik Saeed Ijaz refused the case since it was built upon the testimony of Saba’s sister Aneela, whose status as a minor invalidated her testimony.

Instead, the judge ordered Ali to pay a dowry of 100,000 rupees (US$1,255) and allow her parents to visit, both required by Pakistani marriage protocol. Saba, however, relinquished her dowry, a prerogative provided by sharia. Her family suspects that she made this decision under threat.


Struggling Family

Attempts by Saba’s family to contact and visit her have been thwarted by Ali’s Muslim family members, despite a court order for visitation rights.

“We have heard nothing from Saba,” said Raheel, her uncle. “Once we tried to visit her, and [Ali’s family] ran after us and tried to shoot us. But the judges did not do anything.”

The seven months of legal battling have taken their toll on Saba’s family. Her parents have eight children but have been unable to send their sons to school due to the ongoing costs of the case, even though CLAAS has undertaken it pro bono.

The girls’ uncle has been trying to maintain the family’s quality of life as they struggle to get Saba back and their legal options dwindle.

“This year I will try my best to help them and send them to a school,” said Raheel.

Aneela continues to adjust to life back with her family, away from captivity. She is preparing to resume her schooling.


Common Crime

Kidnapping and rape victims in Pakistan are often Christians, since the influence of sharia on the country’s judicial system means they can be unofficially treated as second-class citizens.

Last month Muslims allegedly abducted and raped another 13-year-old Christian girl. CLAAS reported that two men kidnapped Ambreen Masih in the industrial city of Sheikupura, located northwest of Lahore. Her attackers threatened to her keep silent, and she was abducted a second time this month before her parents discovered the crime, according to a CLAAS report.

The family filed rape charges against the two kidnappers in Sheikupura, but policeman have not yet taken legal action, according to CLAAS.  

Report from Compass Direct News