Freedom of Religion Non-Existent in Bhutan Despite Happiness Claim

ICC Note:

Bhutan is know for its policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), but despite this measure, religious freedom for Christians in the small Asian country is almost non-existent. Christianity is not officially recognized by the royal government of Bhutan. This fact has resulted in Bhutan not having a single Christian burial ground nor a single church nor a single Christian bookstore anywhere in the country, despite Bhutan being home to an estimated 900,000 Christians.

4/25/2014 Bhutan (The Diplomat) –  Bhutan takes pride in, and is internationally acclaimed for, its unique policy of gross national happiness (GNH), which measures the nation’s progress in terms of the wellbeing of its citizens. However, Bhutan’s claim to fame may fall flat when the UN Human Rights Council evaluates how well this nation has respected the rights of its people on April 30.

During its first universal periodic review (UPR) in 2009, Bhutan stated in its report, “Ultimately the Royal Government believes that without the enjoyment of all human rights, Gross National Happiness, to which it is also deeply committed, cannot be achieved.”

Many nations, including Japan and Canada, have expressed aspirations to emulate GNH, which shuns purely economic yardsticks like gross domestic product (GDP), on the assumption that the policy has resulted in Bhutan’s people being happier than elsewhere. But happiness goes hand-in-hand with human rights. So does Bhutan really have respect for human rights?

Based on concerns raised by member nations, the Council made 99 recommendations to Bhutan, and Thimphu agreed, or pledged, to implement more than 70 of them. Statistically, it was an impressive response. But a qualitative look at the ones Bhutan remained uncommitted to paints an uninspiring picture.

Notable recommendations to which Bhutan chose not to give a clear response included abolition of discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity and religion, resolution of the Bhutanese refugee issue, protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, formation of an independent human rights commission and civil society organizations, and ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Bhutan’s roughly 19,000 Christians, who are mostly southerners but also from other ethnic groups, are also treated like “second-class” Christians, as described by a pastor, who also requested anonymity.

Article 7(4) of the 2008 Constitution of Bhutan states that every Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Article 7(15) adds that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status.

However, only Buddhists and Hindus are allowed to form organizations to function legally in the country. The Religious Organizations Act of 2007 – the only legislation that provides for the formation of religious groups – says that its main intent is to “benefit the religious institutions and protect the spiritual heritage of Bhutan,” which is Mahayana Buddhism.

About 80 percent of Bhutan’s population is Buddhist.

Christians have applied for the registration of a confederation so that they can also function with a legal Christian identity, but the Home Ministry has not obliged thus far. As a result, there are no Christian burial grounds, no church buildings and no Christian book stores.

The ambiguity over the legality of practising Christianity in Bhutan has resulted in harassment of the minority by officials.

For example, police in southern Samtse District arrested two pastors, M.B. Thapa and Tandin Wangyal, on March 5 for holding a Christian gathering without the required prior permission from authorities. The pastors remained in jail until April 22 despite an absence of formal charges. Home Minister Damcho Dorji told Business Bhutan that the pastors were “forcibly” converting people, but the local police clearly denied they found any basis for that charge.

“This is an attempt to harass the Christian minority,” said a relative of one of the two pastors, on condition of anonymity.

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