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BHUTAN : CHRISTIANS IMPRISONED BUT HOPE IS GROWING

(Religious Liberty Prayer List) 6/14/2006- According to reliable sources inside Bhutan the brothers Benjamin and John Dai, after showing the Jesus video in a non-believer’s home, were arrested on 8 January 2006 when a boy present informed the police. Last week Benjamin received a prison sentence of three- and-a-half years, while John was sentenced to three years. They were given ten days to appeal to the court for bail and then fight the case against them with the help of a prominent lawyer.

Historically Bhutan has been an isolated Buddhist kingdom with Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion. According to Operation World, Bhutan was closed to Christians until 1965, but then a relaxation of isolationist policies enabled witness through foreign, predominantly Indian, Christian NGOs. However objections to Church growth led to tightening restrictions and through the 1990s Bhutanese Christians were increasingly persecuted. In theory the law permits religious freedom but the reality has been quite different. Christianity is severely regulated and Christians may not build churches or gather together freely. Proselytism by non- Buddhists is illegal as is religious conversion from Buddhism.

There has also been widespread ethnic cleansing of the Hindu

Nepalis.

However Bhutan is in transition from Buddhist kingdom to constitutional democracy. The August 2005 second draft Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, opinion, expression, thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom to receive and disseminate information, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Nevertheless the clause ‘No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement’

(Article 7.3) needs definition. Also, to protect social harmony Article 7.21 restricts freedoms and could be exploited by Buddhist nationalists if the courts permit. But generally the proposed constitution is extraordinary and gives grounds for great hope. So too is the guidance being given by Bhutan ‘s king, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

Over the past eight months the king has held public consultations on the constitution in every district (dzongkhag) of the country.

To fears expressed that religious liberty will undermine and threaten Buddhism he has responded by affirming the equality of all Bhutanis and the importance of liberty for all. When asked about safeguarding social harmony, the king has stated that peace and harmony are the responsibility of all Bhutanis. The Chief Justice likewise affirms that in a democracy there should be no discrimination against any religion, and that freedom of religion is a fundamental right of the people.

So the trial of Benjamin and John Dai, presumably on charges of proselytising, comes at a critical juncture as Bhutan transitions from its past to its future. This situation deserves our fervent and persistent prayers, not only for Benjamin and John, but because debate around this case could define the future of religious freedom in Bhutan .