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 

Deadline for re-registration passes; churches face illegal status

Oppressive new laws in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan required religious communities to re-register with the government by January 1, 2010 or face illegal status. As of December 16, only about 100 of Azerbaijan’s 534 religious communities had been able to do so. Fewer than half of Tajikistan’s religious communities re-registered, reports MNN.

According to Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association, officials place obstructions in the paths of churches trying to re-register.

"They will find some technicality or basically any reason to deny registration. So even if some of the groups actually follow the law to the letter and meet the requirements, it just seems very arbitrary and capricious as to whether the officials will agree to register to not," he explained.

It’s unclear how strictly the governments of the two nations will enforce their laws.

"In the worst case scenario…they could basically close congregations down and impose pretty stiff penalties," Griffith said. "In the best case scenario…unless they agree to fully repeal these statues or amend these laws, I think we need to just hope and pray that even though they’re on the books, these things won’t be enforced."

That’s often the case in countries that have similar laws. The new laws include other burdensome requirements in addition to the re-registration mandate. Azerbaijan’s law requires religious communities to provide more information for registration and to obtain approval to build or rebuild places of worship. It also prohibits the sale of religious literature in unapproved locations and religious activity outside registered addresses.

Tajikistan’s religion law censors religious literature, bans state officials from founding religious communities, requires state approval to invite foreigners for religious visits or to travel abroad for religious events, and restricts children’s religious activity and education.

Christians in Azerbaijan are especially concerned about how courts might interpret unclear provisions in the law. They fear a loose interpretation could penalize "peaceful religious activity." Griffith quoted a passage from the law and explained the issue.

"‘The community formulates its relations with other religious confessions on the basis of religious toleration (tolerance), respect and the avoidance of conflict,’ and the community cannot use violence or the threat of violence in proclaiming its faith. Well, if you don’t define those terms, such as ‘respect and the avoidance of conflict’…you could almost say that Christian evangelism could even be illegal under a formulation like that."

Since Christians believe in only one means of salvation — Jesus Christ — it would be entirely possible for disagreement with other religious groups to be interpreted as "conflict." However, Christians are not the only people worried about the potential impact of the law.

"It’s not just Christians that are concerned; we’ve got Muslim groups that are concerned. These are largely Muslim nations," Griffith said. "I think there are a number of people that are concerned about what this will possibly do down the road."

No matter what does happen, the Christian church will remain committed to the Gospel.

"Regardless of what happens in these countries, the churches still have their marching orders from the Lord: to proclaim the Gospel," Griffith said. "And no matter what man does, they’re going to continue to proclaim the Gospel."

Christians in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan need the prayers and support of their fellow believers. SGA has been supporting churches in the former Soviet Union for 75 years, and it continues to support churches in these two countries.

"It’s important to help them take advantage of every open door they can find to share the Gospel," Griffith said. "It might be through supporting a church-planting missionary; it might be through providing Russian-language Bibles and literature; it may be through helping to support in-country training, and sometimes that training has to take place quietly…. But for churches here in the West that have the resources, it’s important to support our brothers and sisters there who don’t have the resources that we do."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


LOS ANGELES, July 27 (Compass Direct News) – Another Christian imprisoned for his faith in Eritrea has died from authorities denying him medical treatment, according to a Christian support organization.

Sources told Netherlands-based Open Doors that Yemane Kahasay Andom, 43, died Thursday (July 23) at Mitire Military Confinement Center.

A member of the Kale-Hiwot church in Mendefera, Andom was said to be secretly buried in the camp.

Weakened by continuous torture, Andom was suffering from a severe case of malaria, Open Doors reported in a statement today.

“He was allegedly further weakened by continuous physical torture and solitary confinement in an underground cell the two weeks prior to his death for his refusal to sign a recantation form,” the organization said. “It is not clear what the contents of the recantation form were, but most Christians interpret the signing of such a form as the denouncement of their faith in Christ.”

Andom is the third known Christian to die this year at the Mitire camp, located in northeastern Eritrea. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, was said to have died from torture at the same center in early January. On Jan. 16, Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom, 42, died in solitary confinement at the Mitire camp from torture and complications from diabetes, according to Open Doors.

It was not immediately known whether Andom was married or how many family members survive him. He had spent the past 18 months at the Mitire camp.

Last October Open Doors learned of the death of another Christian, Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, who died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement Center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.

In June 2008, 37-year-old Azib Simon died from untreated malaria as well. Weakened by torture, sources told Compass, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died.

With the death of Andom last week, the number of Christians who have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea now total nine. Along with the two Christians who died in January and Kiflom and Azib last year, Nigisti Haile, 33, tied from torture on Sept. 5, 2007; Magos Solomon Semere, 30, died from torture and pneumonia at Adi-Nefase Confinement Center, outside Assab, in February 2007; Immanuel Andegergesh, 23, died in Adi-Quala Confinement Center in October 2006 from torture and dehydration; and also at the Adi-Qaula center, Kibrom Firemichel, 30, died from torture and dehydration also in October 2006.

More than 2,800 Christians remain imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea, according to Open Doors.

The Eritrean government in May 2002 outlawed all religious groups except Islam and the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches. The government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, once again earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State’s latest list of worst violators of religious freedom.

Incarcerated Christians from throughout Eritrea have been transferred to the Mitire prison. In April Open Doors learned that 27 Christian prisoners held at police stations in the Eritrean capital of Asmara had been transferred to the Mitire military camp for further punishment.

They included a pastor identified only as Oqbamichel of the Kale-Hiwot Church, pastor Habtom Twelde of the Full Gospel Church, a pastor identified only as Jorjo of the Full Gospel Church, two members of the Church of the Living God identified only as Tesfagaber and Hanibal, Berhane Araia of the Full Gospel Church and Michel Aymote of the Philadelphia Church.

On April 17, according to the organization, 70 Christians were released from the Mitire military facility, including 11 women imprisoned for six months for allegedly failing to complete their required 18 months of military service. The Christians said that authorities simply told them to go home and that they had no idea why they had been released. They had been originally arrested in Asmara, Dekemhare, Keren, Massawa and Mendefera and transported to Mitire for punishment.

Eritrean officials have routinely denied that religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.

The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement have also been subject to government raids.

Reliable statistics are not available, but the U.S. Department of State estimates that 50 percent of Eritrea’s population is Sunni Muslim, 30 percent is Orthodox Christian, and 13 percent is Roman Catholic. Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is make up less than 5 percent of the population.

Report from Compass Direct News