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Glimmer of dawn for Bhutan's Christians

Indian archbishop’s first visit to Thimphu in 18 years is seen as a positive sign

Glimmer of dawn for Bhutan’s Christians
A Buddhist prayer wheel in Bhutan reporters, Thimpu

March 28, 2011

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Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil, who heads Guhawati archdiocese in India, paid a visit to Bhutan earlier this month. In an arduous itinerary, he crisscrossed the country, saying Masses and calling on Catholic and other Christian communities, under the auspices of a training program for young Bhutanese. It was the first time he had been there since 1993 and while there were clandestine aspects to the trip and few people in Bhutan knew of it, it was not entirely shrouded in secrecy.  In fact, some observers see it as a significant step forward as this tiny, landlocked nation of fewer than 700,000 people continues to open up to the wider  world. Predominantly Buddhist, Bhutan has a longstanding reputation as a secretive, mysterious country, fiercely protective of its traditions. It has not been without its periods of tension. Successive bouts of ethnic strife and harassment forced many to flee to neighboring Nepal, creating the dubious distinction for Bhutan as having one of the world’s highest numbers of refugees  in proportion to its total population. It was only in 1999 that its government lifted a ban on television and the internet, while in 2005 it imposed a nationwide ban on smoking.  To this day, Bhutanese citizens are obliged to wear traditional national dress in public. And the progress of Christianity, which was prohibited completely until 1965, has been checkered and erratic. Although there is evidence to suggest that it is on the rise, with around 10,000 adherents it still accounts for only a small fraction of the population.  In principle, the current legal framework allows freedom of religion and the King is described as “protector of all religions”. Catholics here predominantly hail from Darjeeling.  But ethnic Nepali settlers, now Bhutanese citizens, are also eager to follow the Gospel, the archbishop says. But proselytizing, conversion and the construction of new religious buildings are banned. It is frequently alleged that Christians are hounded and persecuted and as recently as October 2010, a man was jailed for showing a film about Jesus. It is hardly surprising that the Catholics in Thimphu, the capital, find it prudent to hold their Masses and meetings at home or quietly in a small, inconspicuous hall. Their needs are served by the diocese of Darjeeling and Jesuit Father Joseph Kinley Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s royal family and a convert-turned-priest, is able to make occasional pastoral visits. Followers of other denominations tend to congregate in private homes. “There is no direct harassment,” the Archbishop told reporters, “but there are various ways in which the authorities show that new forms of religion are discouraged. When one writes in an application form that one is a Christian, he or she is not likely get an appointment and  may not get admission for higher studies.” “There are many other ways of showing that the authorities are displeased,” he continued. “At one of the places we visited, they said their electricity was cut off, because, possibly, Christians were gathering there regularly for prayer. The reason for the punitive action was not given. They were warned that their water supply might also stop, and even further that the town planning might require the demolition of their house! The reasons given were not the real reasons for such measures.” One person’s house was threatened with demolition as he was conducting prayer services at his premises, he said. “However, I did not find any of the Christians discouraged or over-worried. They have seen harder times and look forward to public worship.” The Archbishop also maintained that several people he spoke to are looking forward confidently to being able to build their own church,  in the not too distant future. But other commentators say they would be highly surprised by such a development. “It appears that the government's recent willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing them under religious regulation,” says a British journalist who lives in the capital. “Bhutanese have no problem with Christians living in Bhutan, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the Buddhist culture. The people I’ve talked to didn't seem to mind if  Christians want to build a church, though they’d be surprised if one was built here. Frankly, I can’t see a cathedral or a minaret being built in Thimphu any time soon.” But while the notion is largely greeted with skepticism, few are prepared to discount  it entirely, as there are clear signs elsewhere that Bhutan is unbending. Under its dynamic, reforming young king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck,  the country held its first democratic elections in 2008. It is also striving for economic improvement, with an ambitious plan to be a prime supplier of hydroelectricity to India and a selective tourism program that targets low volumes of high-income visitors. However, there is great anxiety to ensure that the country’s ecology and culture do not suffer in a headlong rush towards modernization. “The country is simply not ready for hordes of backpackers or Chinese bus tours,” one foreign resident in Thimphu says. It is an article of the constitution that at least 72 percent of the country must be covered in forestland. And it was Bhutan’s former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck who invented the concept of Gross National Happiness in the 1970s, saying at the time that “gross national happiness is more important than gross national product.” Even so, Bhutan faces the same problems that beset all developing countries. As more and more people leave the land to try and find their fortune in the towns, there is rising unemployment, increasing pollution, drug abuse and, according to some observers, a rapidly widening gap between rich and poor. However, the Archbishop remains positive that these obstacles can be overcome.  “Young people in Bhutan are gifted and are eager to learn,” he says. “They come out for training programs with great interest. We are trying to build support groups who will sponsor formation courses, skills training and motivational tours to different parts of South Asia. The youth of Bhutan deserve this help. They will work wonders in the days to come.” Related report First Bhutanese native priest ordained More on this story Bhutan commission to consider recognizing Christians
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