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
Christians’ fears little allayed; armed outfits mushrooming.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 10 (CDN) — Pastor John Vanlalhriata was reading the Bible at his home in Kathmandu valley Sunday afternoon (Sept. 6) when a friend called to give him the news that electrified the Christian community.
“Ram Prasad Mainali has been arrested by police along with three more accomplices,” the friend said. “Finally, our prayers have been answered.”
The 36-year-old Mainali, who claims to have worked in the national army, became a household name in May after the little-known underground organization he headed, the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), claimed responsibility for placing a bomb in one of Nepal’s oldest churches during mass, killing two women and a schoolgirl and injuring more than a dozen people.
Though police claimed a breakthrough in less than a fortnight, saying they had arrested a 27-year-old woman who planted the bomb in the prayer hall of the Catholic Assumption Church on May 23, the suspected mastermind remained elusive. Despite a red alert for Mainali’s arrest, he remained at large in the former Hindu kingdom, continuing to intimidate Christians by ordering them to leave the country or face further violence. He was arrested on Saturday (Sept. 5) in Biratnagar.
The NDA, founded in 2006 after Nepal deposed King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah and became a secular republic, claimed to be grooming an army of suicide bombers in a bid to turn Nepal into a Hindu state again. Since last year, it began to strike in earnest in eastern Nepal, Mainali’s home region.
In March 2008, the NDA bombed a mosque in eastern Nepal, killing two people at prayer, and four months later it gunned down a Catholic priest, the Rev. John Prakash Moyalan, at his residence.
“The Christian community is relieved that Mainali has been arrested,” Pastor Vanlalhriata of the Believers’ Church in Kathmandu told Compass. “They feel Mainali would now learn that it was not good to persecute the church and threaten God’s people. But they are also apprehensive that he might be released soon.”
After the initial joy, that thought is the prospect haunting Nepal’s Christian community – that Mainali and his accomplices could be released soon, either because of legal loopholes or the culture of impunity pervading Nepal since 1996, when Maoist guerrillas began an armed revolt and triggered grave human rights violations for a decade.
“We will have to wait and watch what happens now,” said Balan Joseph, a 42-year-old garment factory employee who lost his teenage daughter, Celeste, in the bombing; eight days later, his wife Buddha Laxmi succumbed to an internal hemorrhage from the blast. “Mainali’s arrest doesn’t mean his gang has been wiped out. Unless the government takes tough action, the morale of all potential killers will rise, and recruits will continue to flock to these gangs.”
Christians have been further anguished by the revelation that Mainali had been arrested previously for an explosion. There were no casualties, and a court granted him bail. On being freed, he promptly went underground, resurfacing Saturday (Sept. 5) in the tea garden district of Jhapa, in eastern Nepal, when police arrested him on a tipoff.
Chirendra Satyal, spokesperson at the Assumption Church, said the possibility of release is the overriding concern. He said a priest told him, only half-jokingly, “I hope the authorities don’t release him again.”
Satyal said he also feels that the threat to Christians has not ended.
“There is a culture of impunity in Nepal,” he told Compass. “This government may fall, and the new one that replaces it may decide to release Mainali. Or he can have a successor stepping into his shoes.”
A sense of insecurity still pervades the Assumption Church, which has not relaxed safety measures even after the arrest. Cars are not allowed inside the compound, and handbags have to be left at the gate. Professional security guards have been employed, reinforced by policemen deployed by the government.
The arrests have also failed to erase the terror from the hearts of those who were present in the church on that fatal day, especially the children. While widower Joseph said God has given him strength to bear his loss, his surviving children – Chelsea, 11, and Sylvester, 9, are still traumatized.
“My friends told me about the arrest,” Chelsea told Compass. “But I am still afraid. So is my brother. And though he too knows about the arrest, he has not talked about it with us.”
On Tuesday, authorities brought Mainali to Kathmandu valley, and he appeared before the chief district officer, who gave police permission to hold him in remand for 10 days for further investigation.
“We feel the threat of religious attacks has ended,” said Police Superintendent Devendra Subedi, whose team arrested Mainali. “A day later, we also arrested Vinod Pandey, who headed another underground organization, the Ranavir Sena, which too was demanding the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. With the heads in the police net, the outfits are bound to collapse.”
Pandey, also arrested from eastern Nepal with an aide, was reportedly planning a series of bomb attacks in the capital and three other major towns: Pokhara, a popular tourist destination, and Biratnagar and Birgunj, two key trade hubs.
Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal (NCCN), said the arrests of the militant group leaders will not resolve the problems of violence in Nepal.
“There are over 100 armed groups in Nepal that are engaged in extortion, abductions and killings,” said Rokaya, who is also a member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission. “Nepal passed through a decade of armed conflict to reach a transitional period where there is still political instability due to the weak government. Many armed groups are trying to take advantage of the vacuum. It’s not only Christians who are suffering, the entire nation is.”
In the Terai, lowlands in southern Nepal running across the open border with neighboring India, armed gangs have mushroomed since the fall of the royal government three years ago. The Believers’ Church is concentrated there. It is part of Christian Unity, an umbrella of churches of different denominations on the plains that the NDA has repeatedly threatened.
The NCCN is putting its hope in a new constitution being drafted by a 601-member Constituent Assembly in consultation with different political parties, organizations and communities. It is scheduled to be presented in May 2010. The NCCN has submitted its recommendations for protection of religious minorities to the Constituent Assembly, as well as to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and President Ram Baran Yadav.
The NCCN’s Rokaya said the recommendations can be summed up in four points: freedom to practice the religion of choice; freedom to change it (a tacit reference to past laws that made conversion a punishable offence); freedom not to practice any religion; and the state not interfering in religious matters.
Report from Compass Direct News