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 


Authorities do nothing to help threatened Christians.

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 26 (Compass Direct News) – Sunday worship in a house church near Zanzibar City, on a Tanzanian island off the coast of East Africa, did not take place for the third week running on Sunday (May 24) after Muslim extremists expelled worshippers from their rented property.

Radical Muslims on May 9 drove members of Zanzibar Pentecostal Church (Kanisa la Pentecoste Zanzibar) from worship premises in a rented house at Ungunja Ukuu, on the outskirts of Zanzibar City. Restrictions on purchasing land for church buildings have slowed the Christians’ efforts to find a new worship site.

Angered by a recent upsurge in Christian evangelism in the area, church members said, radical Muslims had sent several threats to the Christians warning them to stop their activities. The church had undertaken a two-day, door-to-door evangelism campaign culminating in an Easter celebration.

“Radical Muslims reported the church campaign to [village elder Mnemo] Mgomba, who in turn ordered that no Christian activity to be carried out in his area of jurisdiction,” said Obeid Fabian Hofi, bishop of the church.

On the morning of the attack, more than 20 church members had gathered for Saturday fellowship when word reached them that Muslim extremists were about to attack. As the radical group approached, the Christians fled in fear of their lives.

“The group was shouting, saying, ‘We do not want the church to be in our locality – they should leave the place and never come back again,’” said one church member who requested anonymity.

A Muslim had rented his house to a member of the church, Leah Shabani, who later decided to make it a place of fellowship. The church, which has been in existence for seven years, had reached more than 30 members at the beginning of this year, most of them from the Tanzanian mainland. Without their worship site, Bishop Hofi said, some members are traveling long distances into Zanzibar City to worship.

When the church reported the attack to area chief Jecha Ali, members said, he told them that he could not help them.

“This property is not mine – if the owner has refused to allow you people to pray there, then I have nothing to do,” Ali told them.

When Bishop Hofi went to police in Ungunja Ukuu about the attack, officers also told him that the landlord had the right to refuse to rent to the Christian.

“The head of police said he could not help us, arguing that it was the prerogative of the plot’s owner to decide who to lease his property to,” he said.

Police promised to investigate, but Bishop Hofi said he was not convinced they would take any action against those who had attacked his congregation.

“To date no action has been taken by the police,” he said. “I am very concerned about the spiritual situation of my flock, seeing that my appeal has landed in deaf ears. No one is ready to listen to our grievances. We are fighting a losing battle since the administration is headed by Muslims.”

Bishop Hofi said he has decided to appeal for prayer and financial support from churches in Zanzibar to buy property for a church building. He said church members have spoken with Mercy Baraza, a Muslim from the Tanzanian mainland, who has pledged to sell her Zanzibar plot to them.

“The church is now raising money with the hope that the members will soon have a place to worship,” Bishop Hofi told Compass by telephone. “I know getting the money is easy, but to get someone to sell the land might be difficult, especially for worship purpose, but we are trusting God for His providence. We shall be very grateful for prayers and any support towards the purchase of the plot for church worship.”

The prospective site is near a police station, he said, giving him optimism that if they obtain it they could worship peaceably.

“It will be a secure place for the church,” he said.

In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, the church faces numerous hurdles. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.

Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.

Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania would dominate them.

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