The Other Side
Bhutan’s constitution guarantees the freedom of religion but the Christians in Bhutan do not have the same legal status as the Buddhists or the Hindus.
The Christians in Bhutan complain that they do not have the same legal status as the Buddhists or the Hindus.
Proselytizing is a central activity in many religions and it is because of this that the world’s largest religions are now spread out to the remotest corners. Missionary zeal has resulted in the construction of temples, churches and mosques in the most far flung of places but, consequently, local religious practices and culture has been indelibly altered.
Religion, culture and national identity are often interlinked, especially in countries where the majority practices one faith. Some countries like Pakistan and Israel have their very roots in religious identity. Others may not have been formed on the basis of a religion but faith has a deep impact on how a country views itself and how it is viewed abroad.
For this reason, proselytizing by religious minorities is not encouraged in many countries while it is actively prohibited in some. There are laws as well as social practices in place to curb activities that are seen as efforts to turn the public away from their current faith. Such bans result in penal action against proselytizers and may even cause violent public reactions against them. Vaguely worded laws regarding blasphemy, hate speech or ‘hurt religious feelings’ in particular are often interpreted to discriminate against minorities in a number of ways.
These laws are labelled as being protectionist and aimed at preserving culture and the current way of life. Consequently, they often have widespread public support at least until the point where a country begins to accept diversity in everything, including religion, as a positive.
The threat of losing their identity to global cultures and larger religions particularly strikes smaller countries and it may be a contributing factor to their vehement opposition for proselytizing.
Bhutan, the tiny neighbor of two power houses to its north and south, is a Buddhist country. Buddhism is the state-sponsored religion and it is expressed in everything from the constitution and the national dress to the general outlook towards life i.e., the gross national happiness indicator that is uniquely Bhutanese.
The country does have a Hindu and Christian minority and the law permits freedom of religion for all.
However, as expected, it is Buddhism that drives the country’s social and political narrative.
Despite a constitutional clause guaranteeing the freedom of religion, in practice everything is not going well for Bhutan’s minorities. There have been reports of discrimination against the Hindu population in the country’s south. The tiny Christian minority finds itself turned into a fringe group whose practice of its faith is limited to homes. Christians are not allowed to build churches or congregate in public for expression of their beliefs. Publication and distribution of religious texts is also not allowed.
Recently, two pastors found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Reverend Tandin Wangyal and Reverend B Thap were accused and found guilty of holding a public gathering in a village without obtaining prior permission from local authorities, as required.
Pastor Thap received a suspended jail sentence and was released after paying the court’s fine. Pastor Wangyal was convicted for showing a film without getting an official permit and also for receiving funds from abroad presumably for the purpose of proselytizing. He was handed a jail sentence of several years. The pastor has been released on bail but his case could drag on for a long time.
Bhutan’s constitution provides for freedom of religion and this has often been asserted by the political leaders who have led the country towards democracy. But the Christians in Bhutan do not have the same legal status, recognition or rights as the Buddhists or Hindus.
This is partially because the Christians constitute a tiny percentage of Bhutan’s population – two percent. The other reason is that the Christians are viewed somewhat suspiciously. Spreading the message of their religion and encouraging others to join it are the basic tenets of the Christian faith. This may be done through active proselytizing or through community services and philanthropy, such as providing free healthcare and education to the needy.
Christianity is viewed as a western religion that can encroach upon the local religions and the values they espouse. It is felt that proselyting poses a threat to the way of life which is uniquely Bhutanese and which is derived from the Buddhist faith.
Countries like Bhutan face the acute struggle of keeping their national identity free of taint while at the same time letting in enough of the outside world to benefit from what it has to offer. It is a very difficult balance to maintain. There is always a danger that the need to survive in a globalized world could erase local heritage and culture.
This fear is well founded since in an increasingly connected world, the views accepted by the majorities are propagated and accepted globally. The same few languages and cultural values are gaining ground everywhere. Homogeneity is growing and the very diversity that globalization is supposed to celebrate and embrace is being wiped away.
Bhutan, after years of avoiding the global economy, is now gradually joining in. Its system of governance has changed from monarchy to democracy which itself is a western value. Statements have been issued by the ruling politicians regarding Bhutan’s desire to be a part of the world. Gross National Happiness is no longer enough for the Bhutanese to thrive. But Bhutan is not willing to give up on its culture for the sake of assimilation.
Religions that proselytize do tend to spread at a much faster pace than those that do not and, given this, it is easy to understand the aversion of Buddhist Bhutanese to this practice. The desire to preserve their own way of life has resulted in laws that are discriminatory – if not in word then in practice.
It is a well-known fact that protectionist laws made for the purpose of shielding religious sentiment against hate speech, blasphemy or proselytizing are often misused. They may be used to settle personal scores or to inflame religious sentiments till they turn to violence as has happened repeatedly in Pakistan. The more loosely termed these laws are, the more open they are to misinterpretation and misuse. Religious zeal might also encourage people to pursue the observance of the laws more strictly than is necessary or to imagine wrongdoings where none have taken place.
Such laws also make the minority groups feel unsafe even if that is not their outward purpose. Minorities often feel that the laws protecting majority sentiments are used against them.
Bhutan continues to find its footing in the ever-changing global landscape as a burgeoning democracy and a member of the free world which believes in human rights that include the freedom to hold and express varying religions. Proselytizing is a dilemma faced by many countries and laws against it have been implemented elsewhere as well.
Currently, the majority of Bhutanese agree that they do not want proselytizing to take place around them. Whether this will change as the country opens up to global influences depends on how rigidly Bhutan is willing to hold on to its religious identity. The writer is a business graduate. She has interest in political and social issues.