Bhutan - An Exotic Country in Need of The Gospel

 

by Dr Johnson C. Philip and Dr Saneesh Cherian 

 

Bhutan is a small landlocked country to the north-east of India, which has maintained a good political relationship with the UK since the early 20th Century. In 2006, a survey1 indicated that Bhutan was the happiest country in Asia and eighth happiest in the world. Yet, this country does not grant any kind of freedom to Christians.

 

Approximately one-third the size of England, Bhutan has a population of 770,000 people. The majority are Buddhist and there is a significant Hindu minority. While there are a few Christians, they cannot practise their faith or even identify themselves as Christians. Dzongkha, the national language, is widely understood, but more than two dozen languages are also spoken.

 

Formerly an absolute monarchy,  Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy under theDruk Gyalpo (Dragon King),Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and held its first election in 2008. The monarch can be impeached by a two-thirds majority of the elected representatives, but there has never been reason to do so. The king is benevolent to the people and they worship him as a demi-god. Every household, institution, office and even temple displays his picture prominently, and with great reverence.

 

Bhutan is an ancient country, although the exact details of its history are difficult to trace. Outsiders have been given little access to this remote country because of the difficulty in travelling there. Consequently, few external records exist and most of the internal historical records were lost in 1827 when a fire destroyed Thimphu, its capital. In spite of this, we know that early in Bhutanese history people were Animists. In the 7th Century, Songstan Gampo, the king of Tibet, extended Buddhism into Bhutan and Sikkim, which lies between Bhutan and Nepal. The king converted to Buddhism and spread his new faith with great zeal, constructing a Buddhist temple in Bhutan. Since then, Buddhism has dominated the country and little space for other religions has been allowed. However, Hinduism has made inroads due to Bhutan's close proximity to India and significant trade between the two countries. 

 

Christian Faith in Bhutan

 

According to official figures, Bhutan's population comprises 84% Buddhist, 11.4% Hindu, 3.4% Animist and 0.3% Christian. Some estimates suggest that there are around 10,000 Christians among Bhutan's 770,000 people, while others suggest a larger figure of 70,000, but this is unlikely. At present, Christians cannot openly profess or practise their religion. Of the Christian population, it is estimated that 1,000 are Roman Catholics and the rest have a Protestant background, although not all of them are evangelical.

 

Being situated in such an isolated region, with hundreds of kilometres of unnavigable and hilly terrain, few Christian missionaries or agencies were able to reach the country until the 1600s. The first were Jesuit, who ended up in Bhutan while looking for alternative routes to their Tibetan mission station. The ruler-priest of the country received them warmly, encouraged them to stay and even helped them to build a church-like structure. However, after eight months of outreach, not a single Bhutanese had converted; they abandoned the work and left for their original destination of Tibet.

 

In the 1900s, Pentecostal groups started distributing tracts through individuals and postal evangelisation programmes. This brought many to Christ who now gather privately; most of these congregations identify themselves as Pentecostals. However, it seems that there is a group, of less than 1,000 Christians, who are non-denominational in their outlook. Contact with this group could be helpful to encourage an active and vibrant assembly-testimony in the country. However, if such a work was to commence, a substantial amount of resources and support would be required. India is the only nearby country in which an assembly-based missionary force exists that could access the isolated Bhutanese. 

 

Opposition To Christian Faith

 

Although one of the ruler-priests welcomed the Roman Catholic missionaries in the 1600s, rulers have tended to oppose all religions other than Buddhism and Hinduism. The benevolence towards Hinduism is because Buddhism and Hinduism have always enjoyed some kinship, in spite of their mutual opposition. The government has repeatedly refused to recognise Christianity as an acceptable religion. Requests to allow churches to register and function have been denied. As a result, there is no official church, Christian organisation, or other openly identifiable Christian entity in Bhutan. It has been reported that the Christians have to bury their dead either deep in unidentified forests, or in Indian border towns.

 

Christians are not accepted within the community and there is discrimination in every sphere of life. Those who live in the more remote areas particularly suffer because of this. It is illegal to preach the gospel or lead people to Christ. Charges of proselytisation attract immediate imprisonment and punitive action. As a result, Bhutan is ranked as the 31st worst country in the world for Christian persecution. Leaders and preachers are arrested from time to time, but this is not publicised by the Christian community for fear of further reprisals.

 

Bhutan has good diplomatic relations with more than 50 other countries and particularly strong ties with India, which assists Bhutan with military training. Citizens of Bhutan and India can travel between the two countries using their identity cards; no passport or visa is required. However, the constitutional or religious freedoms in Bhutan are different to that of India. This should motivate Christians to pray with concern for Bhutan, as its people could be the key to the evangelisation of Sikkim, Tibet, and southern parts of China, where there is a large unreached population. These landlocked regions are so isolated from the rest of the world that only the active witness of local people, who are familiar with the languages and customs, can effectively reach these people with the gospel. 

 

 

1. Business Week 2006 survey: www.bloomberg.com

 



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