Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground

Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.


Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Madhya Pradesh, July 31 (Compass Direct News) – As if conversion were illegal in India, nearly 50 Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal activists on Sunday (July 26) stormed the compound of the Assembly of God Bethel Church in Habibganj, Bhopal, accusing Christians of converting people. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that pastor K.A. George and a guest pastor were about to baptize a woman and her daughter when the extremists entered the church premises shouting “Jai Shri Ram [Victory to Lord Ram].” The Indian Express reported that Superintendent of Police R.S. Mishra stated that Hindu extremists Devendra Rawat, Kamlesh Thakur and others charged that conversions were taking place; church secretary Abraham George filed a counter-complaint that the VHP and Bajrang Dal disrupted the Sunday service. The VHP and Bajrang Dal extremists also accused the church of “allurement” in the conversion of the woman’s daughter, but a GCIC regional coordinator told Compass that the woman and her daughter have been worshipping there for many years and stated that they desired to receive baptism of their own free will. At press time, police were investigating the complaints of both the parties.

Madhya Pradesh – On Sunday (July 26) about 40 Hindu extremists from the Dharam Sena (Hindu Religious Army) attacked the Sneh Sadan (Home of Love) Institute run by Christians in Japalpur. A source reported that at about 12:30 a.m. the Hindu extremists shouting anti-Christian slogans tried to enter the institute for the handicapped run by the Methodist Church. Prior to the attack, the extremists filed a police complaint against the home manager, Lily Paul, for alleged forceful conversion. The police reached the premises before the extremists did major harm. Police took written statements about the institute from Paul and promised to carry out an inquiry. “Sneh Sadan is the abode of about 40 special people, and the incident has left us shaken,” Paul said. Police provided protection for the home.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Sunday (July 26) attacked a prayer meeting of St. Thomas Evangelical Church in Hassan, beat the pastor and destroyed church furniture. The extremists filed a complaint against pastor Basanth Kumar of forceful conversion and handed the church’s Bibles and hymnbooks to police, reported the Global Council of Indian Christians. Officers registered a case of forceful conversion against the pastor and released him on the condition that he would present himself whenever summoned. The next day at about 6 p.m., the police summoned the pastor and arrested him for “abetment of a thing.” He was released on bail on Tuesday (July 28) with the help of local Christian leaders.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu medical students at Gandhi Medical College under the influence of Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu council) on July 23 beat a professor and filed a complaint with the college principal accusing three faculty members of forceful conversion in Musheerabad. A source reported that the extremists had the Hindu medical students submit a letter to the principal charging that Prof. Anthony David, Dr. Sudhakar and Dr. Uday Kumar were forcibly converting people to Christianity. The principal called for a meeting, and about 100 Hindu extremists gathered at the college. The principal informed the extremists that the college would form a committee to investigate, and the panel reported that no religious conversions took place on the college premises. The extremists crowded around Sudharkar and Kumar, angrily questioning them, and after they left two unidentified extremists followed the third professor, David, to his room and beat him. The professor sustained minor injuries. Tension prevails on the college campus, a source said.

Tamil Nadu – Hindu extremists on July 22 assaulted a Christian media team and accused them of forceful conversion in Erode. The All India Christian Council reported that the intolerant Hindus attacked 10 members of the Young Men’s Evangelical Fellowship, South Division, while they were distributing gospel tracts. They seized and burned all literature, damaged their vehicle, kicked and beat the Christians and took them to a Hindu temple, where they were forced to lie down and pay homage to idols. An unidentified local Christian alerted the police, who came to the site and freed the Christians. One of the team members received hospital treatment, and the rest were provided first aid.

Karnataka – The Karnataka High Court on July 20 continued a stay order against demolition of the Indian Apostle Church (IAC) building in Channagiri, Davangere district, according to The Hindu. Area Christians had challenged the demolition order and charged that the district administration had taken several anti-Christian measures, including ordering the church demolition. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that previously police had disrupted the church’s Sunday worship service and closed the IAC, claiming that it had opened with an illegal license; officers issued arrest warrants against two pastors and seven Christians in Ajihalli village, Davanagere. Earlier, on May 29, the village head along with Hindu extremists had disrupted a prayer meeting led by pastor Prem Prasanth as the church building was being dedicated. The pastor told them he had obtained permission from the village head, but the chief denied issuing a license to the Christians. On June 25, the village head sent a notice to Pastor Prasanth cancelling the license for the church building. On July 7, police disrupted the worship service and closed the church. Later, when Pastor Prasanth and other Christians went to Channagiri police station to inform officials that they had obtained the license from the village head, officers filed false charges against them for rioting and voluntarily causing hurt.

Haryana – Hindu extremists from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on July 19 attacked a children’s educational center in Ambala, beating Christian staff members and ordering everyone to vacate the premises. A source reported that BJP Hindu extremists attacked pastor Daniel Kamaraj and his staff, who are running a free educational program under Children Compassion Ministry. The five Christian staff members sustained minor injuries. The intolerant Hindus accused pastor Kamaraj of forceful conversion and forced him to leave. The pastor went to the police station the next day, where officers told him to vacate the building as soon as possible. At press time the learning center had been relocated to the pastor’s home.

Andhra Pradesh – Police arrested a Christian woman identified only as Hemavathy on charges of “proselytization” on July 19 in Tirupati. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the arrests were made on the basis of the complaint filed by a medical officer from Shri Venkateswara Ayurvedic College-Hospital, who accused her of distributing religious pamphlets on hospital premises. Area leaders from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party staged a protest in front of the police station demanding action be taken against Hemavathy. The Hindu reported that Circle Inspector V. Subhannna said action would be taken in accordance with Government Order No.747, which prohibits “proselytization in and around Hindu temples and institutions.” The Christian woman was released on bail on July 21 at 6 p.m.

Karnataka – A mob of about 20 Hindu hardliners on July 19 attacked a prayer meeting and accused Christians of forceful conversion in Pillingiri, Shimago. At about 7 p.m. a pastor identified only as Chinnadurai was leading a prayer meeting at the home of a member of his Pentecostal Mission church when the intolerant Hindus stormed in and threatened and assaulted the Christians, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. The Hindu extremists filed a police complaint of forceful conversion and pressured officers to arrest the Christians. Police arrested the Christians for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” and unlawful assembly. The Christians were released the next day.

Andhra Pradesh – Police on July 19 arrested Pastor Devadass of Manna Church after Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh beat him and accused him of distributing gospel tracts on Hindu temple premises. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 10 extremists assaulted the pastor as he was returning from a Sunday worship meeting. They dragged him to a police station and accused him of distributing gospel tracts at the Rajarajeshwar Hindu temple in Vemulawada. Officers detained him for a couple of hours, releasing him on the condition that he return to the station the next day, when they took a written statement from him. On July 24 police arrested the pastor in his home for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class.” The pastor remained in Karimnagar district jail at press time.

Manipur – Village leaders in Huikap this month tried to decree that no corpses of Christians will be allowed to be buried in the village. The All Indian Christian Council reported that the unconstitutional order came after a 2-year-old boy from a Christian family drowned in a village pond on July 19; the body of the boy was buried in a church plot, but the next day anti-Christian villagers forced the father of the child and the pastor of a church to disinter it. Village authorities later agreed to let the boy’s body remain at the graveyard on the condition that the corpses of minor children be buried according to Hindu custom. This order was also unconstitutional, and Northeast Support Centre and Helpline spokesman Madhu Chandra told Compass that area police officials had issued an order to the Hindu village leaders to refrain from enforcing it. At press time calm had returned to the area.

Karnataka – Police on July 18 arrested four Christian workers in Bangalore after Hindu extremists dragged them out of a house, beat them mercilessly and charged them with forceful conversion in Bangalore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Hindu extremists attacked Madan Kumar, Amar Singh, Munendra Kollar and James Wesley while they were praying in a Christian’s home. The Christians were reported to have previously distributed gospel tracts and pamphlets. At 8:30 p.m. the Christians were taken to Gnanabharathi police station and arrested for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” and actions contrary to national integration. They were released on bail the next day.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists beat a pastor and accused him and his wife of forceful conversion on July 10 in Chitradurga. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that at about 10 a.m. the Hindu extremists, led by H.R. Kallesh, stormed the tea stall of a woman identified only as Sharada, wife of a pastor identified only as Nagaraj, and questioned her about her faith. The extremists verbally abused her, threatened to burn her alive and asked her how much money her family had received to convert to Christianity. They took her to a police station to file charges against her, also accusing her and her husband of forceful conversion. On hearing about the incident, the pastor rushed to the police station, where the extremists repeatedly struck him upon his arrival while officers stood by watching, according to EFI. The pastor also filed a complaint against the attackers. No arrests had been made at press time.

Karnataka – Police issued arrest warrants against pastor Godwin Nicholas and Charles Ravi Kumar on the basis of a complaint filed by Hindu extremists against them of forceful conversion and bribery in Hassan. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar filed a police complaint on July 10 in Arsikere police station falsely accusing Pastor Nicholas and Ravi Kumar of forceful conversion and offering people money to convert to Christianity. A First Information Report was registered against the Christians and arrest warrants were issued, but they were granted bail on July 13.

Gujarat – Suspected Hindu extremists on July 6 attacked a Christian school in Dahod. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that authorities of St. Stephen High School requested some female students with henna designs on their arms to wash them off in accordance with school rules. The parents of one unidentified student reported the matter to the Hindu extremists. The following day, the extremists barged into the school and asked authorities why the girls were asked to wash off the henna designs. Unable to listen in their fury, they started beating the principal and desecrated Christian statues at the school. EFI reported that the school remained closed the following day as a sign of protest against the incident, and area Christians wore black badges. The school filed a police complaint, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Student’s Council), formed under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on July 1 attacked St. Agnes School in Mahaboobnagar. Reacting to the punishment for disturbing class of a Hindu student identified only as Keerthi, the Hindu extremists along with the student’s brother attacked the Christian school shouting, “Jai shri Ram [Praise Lord Ram].” They destroyed furniture and other fixtures and threatened to harm school authorities. Both parties filed a police complaint. No arrests had been made at press time.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal (Youth Wing of the VHP) put up three signboards in Bastar in July sternly warning Christians not to preach in the area. The signboards, placed at three different sites, read, “Preaching about Jesus Christ is strictly prohibited in the area.” The signs include pictures of Hindu deities along with names of the extremists groups. Most of the churches in Bastar, which borders the troubled district of Kandhamal, Orissa state, were closed down as the Hindu extremists continually threatened tribal Christians there.

Report from Compass Direct News 


According to the chairman of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Germany, the death of Jesus Christ was not a redemptive act of God to liberate human beings from the bondage of sin and open the gates of heaven. The Archbishop of Freiburg, Robert Zollitsch, known for his liberal views, publicly denied the fundamental Christian dogma of the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death in a recent interview with a German television station, reports Hilary White,

Zollitsch said that Christ “did not die for the sins of the people as if God had provided a sacrificial offering, like a scapegoat.”

Instead, Jesus had offered only “solidarity” with the poor and suffering. Zollitsch said “that is this great perspective, this tremendous solidarity.”

The interviewer asked, “You would now no longer describe it in such a way that God gave his own son, because we humans were so sinful? You would no longer describe it like this?”

Monsignor Zollitsch responded, “No.”

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch was appointed to the See of Freiburg im Breisgau in 2003 under Pope John Paul II. He is the sitting Chairman of the German Episcopal Conference, to which he was elected in 2008 and is regarded as a “liberal” in the German episcopate.

In February 2008 he said that priestly celibacy should be voluntary and that it is not “theologically necessary.” Zollitsch has also said he accepts homosexual civil unions by states, but is against same-sex “marriage.”

He told Meinhard Schmidt-Degenhard, the program’s host, that God gave “his own son in solidarity with us unto this last death agony to show: ‘So much are you worth to me, I go with you, and I am totally with you in every situation’.”

“He has become involved with me out of solidarity – from free will.”

Christ, he said, had “taken up what I have been blamed for, including the evil that I have caused, and also to take it back into the world of God and hence to show me the way out of sin, guilt and from death to life.”

However, Article 613 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definitive work issued by the Church explaining the dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic religion, describes the death of Christ as “both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’, the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the ‘blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’.”

The Catechism continues, “This sacrifice of Christ is unique; it completes and surpasses all other sacrifices. First, it is a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is the offering of the Son of God made man, who in freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience.

Report from the Christian Telegraph