Concerns about Religious Rights in Bhutan Raised at U.N. Council

Freedom of worship, legal recognition for Christians in democratic monarchy lacking, members say.

Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. (Facebook)

Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. (Facebook)

THIMPHU, Bhutan (Morning Star News) – Several member countries of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) have raised concerns over lack of rights for religious minorities in Bhutan, but legal recognition for Christians remains nowhere in sight.

At the UNHRC’s recent Universal Periodic Review of the Buddhist nation in Geneva, Switzerland, the United States and other nations urged the tiny kingdom to protect religious freedom by allowing people to freely practice their faith and by granting all religious groups equal opportunity to obtain legal status.

Among other international rights groups submitting reports, U.S.-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) called on Bhutan to address various religious freedom concerns. ADF noted that Bhutan has enacted several laws restricting fundamental rights of its citizens, freedom of association and freedom of religion and belief of individuals.

Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional democratic monarchy in 2008 after a century of absolute monarchy. ADF lamented that Christians are still unable to freely profess, practice or propagate their faith due to legislative hurdles, in spite of several provisions in the country’s constitution that recognize and affirm basic human rights, including freedom of religion and belief.

“Freedom of conscience is the bedrock for any democracy, and Bhutan would do well to recognize and protect this basic fundamental right of all its citizens,” said Tehmina Arora of ADF. “Bhutan’s embracing of democracy is very encouraging, and we hope that Bhutan will continue strive to protect its religious minorities.”

The member states also urged Bhutan to accept requests for visits by U.N. Special Procedures mandate holders, including the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, without further delay.

“Religious freedom is a basic human right that belongs to all people, and that includes the people of Bhutan,” Arora added. “No one should be targeted for violence, inhumane treatment, and religious discrimination simply because of their faith.”

The leader of the Bhutanese delegation to the UNHRC, Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs Damcho Dorji, said that Bhutan was committed to further protect and promote fundamental rights and freedoms of its people as enshrined in the Constitution of Bhutan.

In response to questions regarding freedom of religion at the April 30 review, the Bhutanese delegation said that the country’s people have the freedom to embrace and practice any religion of their choice, provided it is a choice made out of free will. The delegation referred to Article7(4) of the constitution, which guarantees the right to practice any religion provided a person is not compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.

After making several attempts to get legal recognition in the country, however, the Christian minority appears to have given up hope. One pastor told Morning Star News they had approached the previous government without success and were hoping the new government led by Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay would heed their plea. But the March 5 arrest of two Christian pastors, M.B Thapa (Lobzang) and Tandin Wangyal, in the southern district of Samtse, made it clear that the government was in no mood to give Christians their rights, he said.

The pastors were in prison for 49 days on initial charges of proselytizing and were later booked for screening a film without prior permission (allegedly violating the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority Act of 2007) and collecting funds for banned activities (under the Civil Society Organization Act of Bhutan).

They are awaiting a verdict from the district court even as Christians are hoping against hope to get the right to legally function as churches and organizations before Bhutan comes up for UNHRC review again in 2018.

Of the country’s approximately 700,000 people, about 75 percent practice Buddhism, and 22 percent are Hindus, according to Operation World. The Christian population is estimated at 15,000 to 19,000, or 2 to 2.7 percent. As only Buddhists and Hindus can register their associations to become legal entities, Christians generally confine themselves to closed-door house churches or private halls to worship but face obstacles and persecution.

Wedged between two Asian giants, China and India, Bhutan is keen to preserve its unique culture. Bhutan’s Christians assert that obtaining legal recognition will not undermine the nation’s culture.

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