One of Two Pastors Arrested in Bhutan Faces Funds-Collecting Charge

Initial accusations of proselytizing, prior permit dropped.

Bhutan Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs Damcho Dorji. (Facebook)

Bhutan Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs Damcho Dorji. (Facebook)

THIMPHU, Bhutan (Morning Star News) – Prosecutors in this tiny Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas are charging one of two pastors arrested in March with illegally collecting funds and have dropped charges against both of lacking permission to screen a film, sources said.

The Office of the Attorney General in April charged M.B. Thapa, known as Lobzang, and Tandin Wangyal with attempting to screen a film and illegally collecting funds after no evidence was found to charge them with proselytizing, as the home and cultural affairs minister had initially sought. A trial court earlier this month dismissed the film screening charge, relieving Lobzang of both charges, while Wangyal was called for two evidence hearings about findings on his laptop.

Wangyal was charged with collecting funds from within and outside of Bhutan. He denied the charge, which under Article 71 of the Civil Society Organization Act of Bhutan outlaws raising funds for activities “in contravention of the laws of the country” and without prior permission. The pastors were arrested in Khapdani village, Dorokha area in Samtse District, on March 5.

“I would never think of collecting money from the poor villagers,” Wangyal told Morning Star News. “They are trying to link information from my laptop and hard disk to the Khapdani case, which is totally irrelevant.”

Before winning release on bail on April 22, the two pastors were detained for 49 days without formal charges. The evening of March 4, they had spoken at a ground-breaking ceremony for a new house at the invitation of another Christian in Khapdani. They were planning to hold a three-day seminar in the village the next day that included the film screening, but as they were trying to transport a child who was ill to a hospital, police arrested them.

The Civil Society Organization Act puts restrictions on collections, stipulating that “No person shall collect or ask for any contribution or charity to aid or help any activity, which is in contravention with the laws of the Country, and a collection in a public place must not be conducted unless the promoters of the collection hold a public collections certificate from the Authority and the collection is conducted in accordance with this Act.”

Meantime, Wangyal refuted Home and Cultural Affairs Minister Damcho Dorji’s statement to Business Bhutan newspaper that religion was not a factor in the arrests.

“All this time they have denied that it was a faith-based arrest, but everything since day one has revolved around faith,” Wangyal told Morning Star News.

Bhutan has numerous Buddhist monasteries and a few Hindu temples, but no church building. Christians are generally allowed to meet in homes or private halls to worship but face obstacles and persecution in trying to do so.

The miniscule Christian community remained underground until 2008. Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional democratic monarchy in 2008 after a century of absolute monarchy.

While charges against Lobzang have been dropped, the verdicts against him and Wangyal will be announced jointly. Maintaining their innocence, Lobzang said he is hopeful that they will receive a fair trial.

“We have faith in the justice system of our country, and we continue to pledge we have not violated Tsa-Wa-Sum [King-Country and People],” he said.

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