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 


Government uses brothers as scapegoat in murder; officials claim violence not sectarian.

ISTANBUL, December 1 (Compass Direct News) – Two Coptic Christians wrongfully arrested for killing a Muslim during the May 31 attack on Abu Fana monastery in Egypt have been tortured and sent to a detention camp so authorities could try to extract a false confession, their lawyer said.

Egyptian authorities sent brothers Refaat and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo to El Wadi El Gadid Detention Camp near the Egypt-Sudan border on Nov. 22. A week earlier they were bailed out pending their court case – but never released – and held in a Mallawi police station until their transfer to the camp.

The brothers’ attorney, Zakary Kamal, said the timing of the murder at the monastery rules out any possibility of the two Copts having committed it.

Monks at Abu Fana say the Fawazy Abdo brothers were far from the monastery at the time of the May 31 attacks, which began at roughly 4 p.m. and continued until police arrived four hours later.

Security forces are detaining the brothers to blackmail the Coptic Church into testifying that the attack against Abu Fana monastery in Mallawi, Upper Egypt, was not religiously motivated, Kamal said.

“They want the whole issue to be seen by the public as if it were an exchange of gunfire and a criminal case that had nothing to do with persecution of Christians,” he told Compass.

At the beginning of Refaat and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo’s captivity in June, police subjected the two men to electric shocks eight hours a day for three days to try to force them to testify that the Abu Fana monks were armed during the attack, sources said.

Kamal said those guilty in the attack knew the brothers were innocent but attempted to extort 5 million Egyptian pounds (US$920,000) from the Coptic church in exchange for testimony in support of the brothers during informal “reconciliation meetings.”

Such meetings are somewhat customary in Egypt, in which different parties come together to settle legal matters out of court. Egyptian parliamentarians attended the first meetings, but the parties did not reach a settlement.

Kamal said he worries that police and parliamentarians are using the meetings to pressure the Coptic Church to agree to their terms and take the focus of the case off of rising sectarian violence within Egypt.

Reconciliation meetings are part of a larger trend in Egypt of the government framing such clashes as cases of simple land disputes with no sectarian overtimes, the attorney claimed, and so far he has refused to pay money in exchange for a testimony.

“I completely refused any agreements of reconciliation, because if we accept those terms, that means we admitted [the brothers] killed someone,” he said.

The two men worked as building contractors on the walls of Abu Fana monastery when nearly 60 armed Muslim residents attacked it on May 31. The attack left one Muslim dead, four Christians injured, and three monks briefly kidnapped.

Ibrahim Tiqi Riad, the brother of resident monk Father Mina, was also kidnapped and remains missing. A Coptic priest who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass that they believe he may have been forcibly converted to Islam.

In the course of the violence, attackers tied two of the kidnapped monks to a palm tree, whipped and beat them, and forced them to spit on a cross and give the confession of Islam, according to a report by the Coptic Assembly of America.

Five days after the attacks, security forces arrested the Fawazy Abdo brothers, charging them with murder. Their case is pending.

The families of the two men are suffering in their absence as they were the sole breadwinners. The electricity in their families’ houses has been shut off since they can’t pay their bills, Kamal said.

The reasons behind the death of the Muslim at Abu Fana monastery remains a mystery. Police did not record the details of the killing in the investigation report of the monastery attack.

Bishop Demetrios Avanmina, head of the Mallawi diocese and abbot of Abu Fana monastery, is working to resolve the matter with local politicians and security forces.

Avanmina declined to comment to Compass on the brothers’ captivity, saying only that he and others were working with the police and the state to resolve the matter.


Government Spin

The nature of the May attacks against the monastery, located 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Cairo, is in dispute. Coptic advocacy groups claim the attacks were motivated by growing hostility against Egypt’s Christian community.

But local Muslims say monastery leaders were illegally taking possession of land and attempting to frame the attacks in the form of religious persecution in order to gain sympathy for their cause.

Gov. Ahmed Dia el-Din said police reports have documented disputes over the land going back several years, and that Abu Fana obtained portions of its land from informal contracts, resulting in the governor’s rejection of the monastery’s claim of possessing valid land titles, according to Egyptian weekly Al-Maydan.

Following the attacks, hundreds of Coptic Christians took to the streets of Mallawi to demonstrate against the violence. They chanted, “With our blood and soul, we will defend the cross.”

The monastery has seen violent episodes in the past with its neighbors, typically over issues relating to land.

In January another group of a dozen men armed with automatic weapons burned the monastery’s library and destroyed many monastic cells, according to the Coptic Assembly advocacy group.

The Coptic Church makes up at least 10 percent of the Muslim-majority country’s population of 80 million. Its church dates back to the early centuries of Christianity.  

Report from Compass Direct News