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 


Hindu extremists suspected in area known for anti-Christian violence.

NEW DELHI, August 3 (Compass Direct News) – The suspicious death of a 39-year-old priest in the southern state of Karnataka has further terrified Christians living in an area known for anti-Christian violence, but police indicate that they doubt it is a homicide.

The body of the parish priest of St. Mary’s Church, the Rev. James Mukalel was found lying near his motorbike on a remote roadside in Belthangady sub-district near Mangalore early last Thursday (July 30). After family members reportedly sought a second autopsy that delayed interment, the priest’s body was buried on Saturday (July 25) with the cause of death still unsolved.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) maintains that Mukalel, from Belthangady’s Syro-Malabar diocese in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district, was killed.

“According to Fr. Joseph Valiaparambil, vicar general and spokesperson of the diocese of Belthangady, the death of the priest appears to be suspicious and unnatural,” officials at CBCI said in a statement, “as his body was found lying on the roadside near the motorbike which he was riding, and there were no clothes on his body.”

Alluding to Hindu nationalist extremists, the CBCI affirmed that “such killers represent no religious community but only a section which promotes the cult of violence, whose inhuman acts only further widen the gap between religious communities, thus aggravating the agony of the even larger human family.”

The Catholic Church demanded that the alleged killers be brought to justice, but police said Mukalel may have died from food poisoning. Superintendent of Police of Dakshina Kannada district Subramayeshwar Rao told Compass that police had only two theories on the cause of death.

“Although I have not seen the autopsy report, I learned from the forensic surgeons that Fr. James Mukalel died of poisoning – most likely naturally because of food poisoning, or he was poisoned.”

There were no external marks of injury or signs of suffocation, Rao added. The diocesan social work director had reportedly said there were signs of suffocation on the body.

Asked why Mukalel’s body was found nearly naked, Rao said only that Mukalel had vomited and passed a stool before his death.

“The body was found without any clothes, with only underwear, which had been pulled down the legs,” Rao said. “I don’t know why some people are thinking like that [that he was killed and for religious reasons].”

The Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians has demanded an inquiry by the federal Central Bureau of Investigation.

Two Autopsies

Mukalel, from Kannur district in the neighboring state of Kerala, was recently assigned to St. Mary’s Church.

According to the CBCI, Mukalel was killed as he returned to his parish in the Kutrupady area after attending the funeral of a parish priest in the adjacent Charmadi village around 9 p.m. on Wednesday (July 29).

On Friday (July 31) the priest’s body was taken to Government Wenlock Hospital in Mangalore, district headquarters of Dakshina Kannada district, after which the Catholic Church sent the body for last rites to St. Sebastian’s Church in Vellad, in Kerala state’s Kannur district.

A funeral service was held at St. Sebastian’s Church on Saturday (Aug. 1), but the body was not buried. It was instead taken to the Government Medical College at Kozhikode in Kerala for another autopsy because Mukalel’s parents and brother, along with other close relatives, felt it was not a natural death, Indo-Asian News Service reported.

Police official Rao said he had not been apprised of a second autopsy. “I heard about it in the news,” he said. “There is no legal provision for a second autopsy.”

Reports of the two autopsies were awaited at press time. The case, registered as a suspicious unnatural death under Section 174 C of Criminal Procedure Code, will be processed only after autopsy reports are completed.

Past Attacks

The minority Muslim and Christian communities have faced numerous attacks in Dakshina Kannada district in general and in Mangalore in particular.

Most recently, The Hindu reported that on the evening of May 16, the day general election results were announced, a group of people celebrating the victory of Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Nalin Kumar Kateel from Dakshina Kannada attacked four Muslim families with sticks, soda bottles, cricket bats and cycle chains in the Nettrakere area in the Bantwal area in Mangalore.

In August-September of last year, at least 28 attacks on churches were reported in Dakshina Kannada district, mainly in Mangalore. According to a report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), in every case, the attackers were from Hindu nationalist extremist groups like the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagaran Vedike or the Sri Rama Sene.

The attacks were seen as fallout from violence in Kandhamal district in the eastern state of Orissa, where Maoists on Aug. 23 killed a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or the VHP, whose youth wing is the Bajrang Dal), Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, for which Christians were wrongly blamed.

In Karnataka, Hindu nationalists also based their violence on alleged conversions of Hindus to Christianity and to protest a booklet, which they said was “derogatory” to Hindu gods, published by a Christian group, New Life Fellowship Trust.

Mangalore police were also suspected of having played a role in the attacks.

“What was striking about these attacks, especially in Mangalore, is that the police acted in tandem with the Bajrang Dal,” said the PUCL report, entitled, “From Kandhamal to Karavali: The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar” released in March.

“The pattern we observed was that the Bajrang Dal would attack Christian places and cause injury to persons and damage to property,” according to the report. “Then the police would step in, not to chase and arrest the assailants, but ostensibly to prevent any violent retaliation by the Christians. And in the course of the alleged preventive activity, they would assault the Christians further.”

A report by the National Minorities Commission also said that in the first week of the attacks on churches, police arrested more Christians, 47, than extremists from the Bajrang Dal, 36.

Karnataka is ruled by the BJP, which came to power for the first time in the state in alliance with a regional party, the Janata Dal Secular, in February 2006. In May 2008, it won the state assembly elections and became the one-party ruler of the state.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Defectors’ descriptions add to evidence of strong but severely persecuted church.

DUBLIN, April 24 (Compass Direct News) – Eom Myong-Heui of North Korea was a loyal communist in the Workers’ Party of Korea before she became a Christian under the influence of her business partner – a missionary who was later arrested and tortured into revealing that Eom was a believer.

Authorities placed Eom into a detention center in her hometown of Moosan and tortured her into denying her faith – but her incarceration continued under appalling conditions. Officials eventually released her due to her previous national loyalty. Now an assistant pastor at a church in Seoul, South Korea after a harrowing escape from her home country, Eom relates a journey that is part of a growing body of evidence of a strong – and severely persecuted – church in North Korea.

“A lot of people ask me if there really are people in North Korea who believe in Christ,” she said. “Do you really think that the missionaries who were there and all the believers who meet underground are all dead?”

Even as the North Korean government this month allowed two high-profile, U.S. Christian bands to perform at a music festival in Pyongyang, the fear of punishment authorities have instilled in North Korean Christians keeps most of them from publicly revealing their faith. As many as 400,000 Christians are estimated to worship secretly in the country, and Suzanne Scholte, head of an association of some 60 groups campaigning for change in the country called the North Korean Freedom Coalition (NKFC), estimates that more than 200,000 North Koreans are held in political prison camps for various perceived “disloyalties” to the regime, including adherence to Christianity.

Christian support group Open Doors estimates that of the 200,000 people incarcerated in political prison camps, at least 40,000 are Christians. Under North Korea’s policy of juche, or self-reliance, citizens may worship only President Kim Jong Il and his late father, former ruler Kim Il Sung.

Jung Eun Hye, one of several North Korean refugees expected to speak about conditions in the country at events in Washington, D.C. next week, said that freedom of religion is stipulated in North Korea’s constitution, but that “Christians have to risk their lives to have a secret service away from the oppression of the government.”

Jung, who faced severe persecution after authorities caught his father and aunt with Bibles in their possession, said he did not know that any churches existed in Pyongyang until he escaped from North Korea. While a handful of government churches do exist in the capital, Jung is one of many refugees who believe that these churches exist only to “deceive the outside world.”

“Here is my question,” said Jung. “If North Korea has freedom of religion, why does the government arrest, kill or imprison Christians in camps from which they never return?”

Testimony from various sources confirms that the government actively seeks out Christian groups and meeting points and imprisons Christians solely because of their faith. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last year reported refugees saying that Christianity remained a key factor in the interrogation of people repatriated from China to North Korea. Border guards reserved the harshest punishment for those who admitted having any contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians.

“There is no freedom of belief or religion,” one refugee stated. “[We are taught] that if one is involved in religion, one cannot survive.”

Former police and security officers interviewed for USCIRF’s report admitted that their superiors had instructed them to play the role of Christians and infiltrate “underground” prayer meetings in order to incriminate, arrest, imprison and sometimes execute believers in North Korea.


‘Abyss of Death’

A delegation of North Korean refugees recently described their experiences ahead of events on Capitol Hill from Sunday (April 26) through Saturday (May 2) as part of North Korea Freedom Week.

Kim Young Soon, a refugee who spent nine years in a prison camp, said North Korean ruler Kim “is pushing the people into the abyss of death. In such a society, no one can trust anyone.”

Authorities sent Kim Young Soon and her family to prison camp No. 15, otherwise known as Yodok, after she made a seemingly innocent comment about the regime.

“Every mountain and field in Yodok was covered with dead bodies because of malnutrition and hunger,” Kim said. She described waking at 3:30 a.m. to run six kilometers (nearly four miles) to her assigned workplace and surviving on a diet of unripe, salted corn. Her parents and two of her sons died during their incarceration; border guards shot her third son when she fled with him to China shortly after their release.

Former prisoner Jung Gwangil said prison guards sadistically controlled inmates through collective punishment.

“If I did something wrong, all the members of the group I belonged to were punished,” he said. “When guards withheld food or switched off heaters in the middle of winter, fellow prisoners would sometimes beat the responsible inmate to death.”

Another former prisoner, Kim Tae Jin, described being left naked in a freezing cell and forced to sit on quicklime in the rain, resulting in severe burns to her skin.

“Even now, there are people who cut their own fingers off to avoid hard labor, who disguise themselves as madmen, or who lose their arms from beatings because they believe in a God who supposedly doesn’t exist,” she added.

While she was in prison, she said, a fellow inmate known only as Park formed a small “fellowship” of seven Christians. Prison guards eventually caught Park, beat him severely and asked him, “Who told you about the existence of God?”

“Do we have to be told about the existence of the sun to know that it’s there?” Park replied. “We learn its existence by feeling its warmth.”


Perilous Journey

In such conditions, the journey to faith is perilous for North Koreans – or nothing short of miraculous in the case of Eom, an assistant pastor at Seoul’s New Pyongyang Full Gospel Church (a fellowship for North Korean Defectors associated with Yoido Full Gospel Church).

She was extremely loyal to the regime until she made contact with a South Korean-Chinese Christian businessman.

“It’s very hard to live in North Korea, so if you don’t secretly do business, you can’t survive,” Eom said in sharing her story with members of another large church in Seoul, South Korea. “So for a few days I just kept being polite and agreeing with whatever he said about God, even though I knew he was wrong … but then God started to change my heart.”

Eventually the missionary gave her a small New Testament.

“I enjoyed it,” she said. “The teaching to love your enemy, give him food if he’s hungry, give him water if he’s thirsty. I also took to heart the words about loving each other.”

Eom asked a superior why North Korea didn’t have a religion other than worship of the Kim family.

“His eyes got big and he told me that religion was poison,” she said, “and that if I tried to learn about Christianity I would automatically become a traitor.”

As a teacher, Eom knew what happened to children of traitors and immediately began to worry about her two daughters. When police arrested the missionary and someone warned her that she could be next, Eom packed a small bag and assured her youngest daughter that she would return in three days.

“At the time,” she told the Seoul congregation, “I didn’t realize that this trip would bar me from ever entering the country again.”

Detained by police, she said, she could not understand why the authorities were so concerned about whether she was a Christian instead of asking about her business activities. After her release and unable to rescue her daughters, she escaped to China, where she was arrested twice and told, “If we arrest you again, we will kill you.”

From China Eom made a dangerous journey via Myanmar to Thailand, where she spent six months in a detention center before being granted asylum in South Korea in 2002.

“This is a most critical time for the North Korea human rights movement,” said Scholte, head of the NKFC and president of the Defense Forum Foundation. “We either advance these issues now with the opportunity that comes from a new administration and a new Congress, or we see another decade of death and despair for those whose great misfortune was to be born under the Kim Jong Il dictatorship.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


After the 2004 Orange Revolution hope returned to the then recently independent Ukraine, following the corrupt rule of the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych. Now, the coalition of President Viktor Yushchenko (Our Ukraine bloc) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (Tymoshenko bloc) has fallen apart, with Tymoshenko siding with the former Ukrainian ruler Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions party.

Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party has withdrawn from the ruling coalition and now has 30 days to form a new coalition government or call a snap election. The coalition government was officially declared dissolved by the parliament speaker last Tuesday.

The Ukraine and the world now wait to see what will come of the former Soviet Republic and whether the country will slide once again towards anarchy and/or towards Russian influence.

View scenes from the Orange Revolution: