08/04/2006, 00.00
BHUTAN
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Two Christians convicted of proselytism released after 8 months

by Prakash Dubey

The two men were condemned to three years imprisonment for showing Buddhists a film about the life of Jesus. The Indian government's intervention proved decisive.

Siliguri (AsiaNews) – On 29 July, the police of Bhutan released two Christians of Nepalese origin arrested in January on proselytism charges. Their release came about thanks to pressure from the Indian government and the rest of the international community.

Benjamin Budhu Mani Dungana and John Purna Bahadur Tamang belong to a Pentecostal church that has a big following in Nepal and Bhutan. They were arrested on 7 January for screening a film about the life of Jesus in a home of some Bhutanese Buddhists. One of the spectators later reported them to the police, accusing them of wanting to convert the owners of the house.

They were sentenced in early June: the first got three years in prison and the second got three and a half.

Christian groups around the world launched a campaign for their release but it was India's intervention that proved to be decisive. Bhuwan Thapa is a Pentecostal pastor who works in Nepal with the Bhutanese refugee community. He told AsiaNews: "I am sure the Indian government raised the matter last week with the King of Bhutan when he visited Delhi, asking him to free the two Christians."

He continued: "Indian politicians told the monarch that if he really wants his nation to move towards democracy, religious freedom is essential and so the right of each citizen to choose his faith must be guaranteed." The pastor said support from the international Protestant community had surely been very important, however he added: "The final push came from Delhi. Don't forget India is the country that helps Bhutan the most without seeking to annex it as China did with Tibet."

Bhutan is a small isolated kingdom. The state religion is Mahayana Buddhism. Christians have been forbidden to enter since 1965 but some Christian non-governmental organizations, especially Indian ones, managed to enter the country, not least thanks to a lack of attentive police checks. In theory, but not in reality, the law allows freedom of worship.

Christians must keep to severe rules: they cannot build churches nor can they meet freely. Proselytism is illegal but only for those who do not belong to the Buddhist faith.

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