The visit of the young UK Royals, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (“Will and Kate”), to Bhutan is shining a spotlight on a small Himalayan nation perhaps best known for its own King assessing his country’s performance by factors which contribute to “Gross National Happiness”.
But despite this apparent endeavour from the Buddhist nation to ensure its citizens’ felicity, Bhutan’s minorities – including around 20,000 Christians (2.8% of the population) – complain that happiness does not filter down to all parts of society.
Bhutan’s state religion is Buddhism and other religions are barely tolerated, so life as a Christian is difficult. Church buildings are illegal and non-Buddhists are not privy to the same benefits, such as free education. Proselytism and incitement to convert are illegal. Bhutanese who convert to Christianity can lose their citizenship.
According to the constitution, Buddhism is not only the cultural, but also the spiritual heritage of Bhutan. Although there is usually no official pressure to participate in Buddhist festivals or to live according to traditional customs, people are expected to do so. This means that all deviants are met with suspicion, and this includes Christians.
The country is No. 38 in Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List, an annual ranking of countries where life as a Christian is most difficult. Converts to Christianity endure threats and pressures from village heads and clerics to return to Buddhism. They can pray and worship privately in their homes, but they struggle to meet in congregations and to obtain official permission to do so. Some Christians have reported losing their jobs after their employers found out they were Christian.
Christians seeking employment face problems in the first place, as they are a minority; they are victims of discrimination and are short of alternatives. They often have to live in difficult economic and social circumstances.
Approximately 66 to 75 per cent of the population practise different forms of Buddhism. The remaining part of the population, mainly of Nepali origin, practises Hinduism.
Until 1965, Bhutan remained closed to Christianity, as well as to all other external influences. Since then, the Church has experienced continual growth, particularly in the south and major towns.
More on that ‘happiness’
According to the Gross National Happiness Index Report of 2010, there are 33 indicators measuring the happiness of people. Among them are “spirituality”, “values” and “socio-cultural participation”, as well as “Drighlam Namzha”, or “The Way of Harmony”. In each of these aspects, only the main religion, Buddhism, is mentioned; “Drighlam Namzha” in the report is translated as “the expected behaviour”. Consequently, the level of happiness is measured only according to the rules of Buddhism, leaving the Christian minority little room for variance.
Another consequence is that freedom of religion is not named among the indicators for “political freedoms”, although it is fixed in the constitution.
Minorities are able to vote and stand for elections, but the voice of religious minorities is not strongly heard in society, or in institutions such as the government.
In September 2014, two pastors were sentenced to several years in prison for “fundraising for personal gain,” though the money they had been raising was only part of ordinary church offerings.
They were detained under the charges of conducting a gathering for religious purpose without prior approval, showing a film without certificate of approval from media authorities, and for collecting illegal funds. Both pastors served reduced sentences and fined the equivalent of about US $1,500 each.
Charges of proselytism were dropped when, after intense questioning of the 30 Christians who took part in the three-day meeting, police said they found no proof that the two men had forced people to convert to Christianity.