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 


Dispute over evidence stalls bid by convert from Islam to change official ID.

ISTANBUL, January 13 (Compass Direct News) – An attempt by an Egyptian convert from Islam to legally change the religion listed on his identification card to “Christian” hit a setback on Jan. 6 when a judge ordered security personnel to remove his lawyer from court.

Attorney Nabil Ghobreyal was expelled from the courtroom at Cairo’s Administrative Court following a heated argument with Judge Mohammad Ahmad Atyia.

The dispute arose after Atyia refused to acknowledge the existence of legal documents detailing the successful attempt of a Muslim man to convert to the Baha’i faith. Ghobreyal had planned to submit the court records of the decision in support of his case.

The convert from Islam who is trying to legally convert to Christianity, Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, first submitted his request to alter the religious status stated on his ID in August 2008. He follows Muhammad Hegazy as only the second Egyptian Christian convert raised as a Muslim to request such a change.

El-Gohary received Christ in his early 20s. Now 56, he decided to legally change his religious affiliation out of concern over the effects that his “unofficial Christianity” has on his family. He said he was particularly concerned about his daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, 14; though raised as a Christian, when she reaches age 16 she will be issued an identification card stating her religion as Muslim unless her father’s appeal is successful.

At school, she has been refused the right to attend Christian religious classes offered to Egypt’s Christian minorities and has been forced to attend Muslim classes. Religion is a mandatory part of the Egyptian curriculum.

El-Gohary also has charged that his nephew was denied a position in state security agencies because of his uncle’s religious “double life.”

“Why should my family pay for my choices?” said El-Gohary in a report by The Free Copts.

No date has been set for resumption of court proceedings, which, due to the dispute, will reconvene under a different judge.

Ghobreyal said he plans to submit a complaint to the High Administrative Court requesting an investigation of Atyia and the expulsion from court. “I am willing to continue the fight,” Ghobreyal told Compass through a translator, saying he remains hopeful of a positive outcome.

Despite a constitution that grants religious freedom, legal conversion from Islam to another faith remains unprecedented. Hegazy, who filed his case on Aug. 2, 2007, was denied the right to officially convert in a Jan. 29 court ruling that declared it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam.

The judge based his decision on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which enshrines Islamic law, or sharia, as the source of Egyptian law. The judge said that, according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot return to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).

The seminal nature of the El-Gohary and Hegazy cases is part of what makes them so controversial, according to Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

“First, there is no experience – this is a very new question, it has made judges and lawyers confused,” he said. “The second thing is that many judges are very religious, for many of them it is based on their religion, their thoughts; the law itself allows for people to convert, so that’s what we’re trying to do, have a decision based on law not on sharia.”

Eid attributed much of the reluctance to grant conversion to this religious bias.

“If the Minister of the Interior respected the law, we would not need to go to court,” he said. “The law says clearly that people can change their address, their career, their religion, they only have to sign an application and then they can have a new ID; the law allows people to convert from any religion to another.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat amended the constitution in 1980 to make sharia the main source of legislation in order to bolster support from Islamists against his secular and leftist rivals. Legal experts say there are two views of how sharia is to influence Egyptian law: That it is to be enforced directly in all government spheres, or that it is only to influence shaping of law by legislators and is not to be literally enforced by courts or other bodies.  

Report from Compass Direct News