01/20/2004, 00.00
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No masses and entry visas for Catholic priests

Deonyia (AsiaNews/UCAN) – In the little Buddhist kingdom of Buthan in the Himalayas, Christians are forbidden to celebrate or pray in public and priests are denied visas to enter the country, reports Msgr. Stephen Lepcha, Jesuit bishop of Darjeeling and of Lepcha ethnic descent.

During his trip to Nepal for the ordination of a Jesuit priest last December, Msgr. Lepcha explained in an interview all the difficulties experienced by the Church in Buthan.  

The bishop explained that Buddhism is the official religion of Buthan and every other form of religion and mission is prohibited. Until a few years ago Christians who had emigrated there from India and Nepal (doctors, engineers, teachers, and artisans) were free to celebrate mass in public. But the bishop said "at the advent of the third millennium, public religious services were made illegal, imprisoning anyone who violated the law."

"Indian priests are denied entry visas", said Msgr. Lepcha. "Before I was able to celebrate mass in public. Yet in the last three years I was not granted a visa to enter the country." Indian citizens have the right to enter Buthan, after requesting and receiving visas. However this was not the case with Msgr. Lepcha. "Immigration officials in Buthan recognize me now and each time (I make the request) I am denied an entry visa."

Inhabitants of Darjeeling, including those of the Lepcha ethnic origins, have far eastern features,  making them easily mistaken for Mongols. Moreover, this makes their entry into the country more difficult.  For priests having different physical characteristics typical of other regions of India entering the country is easier, at least as tourists.

According to the bishop, authorities are more reluctant in the cases of priests with Mongol features, as their physical resemblance to Buthan's inhabitants allows them to integrate better into the community, thus favoring their conversion to Christianity. Fear of proselytism is a "paranoia" of the government, said Msgr. Lepcha, bishop since 1997.

From an official perspective Buthan authorities say that it is possible to celebrate mass in private homes. "However this is all smoke and mirrors," said the prelate. "How can Christians celebrate mass in private, if authorities don't permit priests to enter the country?"

"Despite this Catholics from Thimpu, the capital of Buthan, were able to celebrate Christmas mass," he said. "We have at least one priest who can enter Buthan whenever he wants without any visa problems." For three consecutive years this priest has had the chance to go to the capital at Christmas to celebrate mass privately with Catholics.  

This priest is the Jesuit Kinley Tshering, the first priest from Buthan. He is related to the royal family and his conversion dates back to the 1970s during his period of studies.

Fr. Tshering became a priest in 1986 and every year he goes to Thimpu for Christmas where he celebrates mass in his own home with non-Bhutanese Catholics. His birthday is Dec. 24. In an interview with UCAN Fr. Tshering said "I am lucky because I can go freely to Thimpu at Christmas to celebrate mass in my own home. All the members of my family also attend the mass, even if they are Buddhists. They know I'm a Christian priest and respect my faith and practices."   

Officially his trips to Thimpu have no ties to Christmas. "I go there simply to celebrate my birthday with my family. I might be better off in India, where Christmas is much for felt. It is not celebrated in Buthan. But the fact that Christmas coincides with my birthday is perhaps divine providence. Only Christ knows!"

Msgr. Lepcha is sure that this coincidence is God's will: "Our Lord knew that one day foreign priests would be denied permission to enter Buthan and that there would be nobody to celebrate mass, even on Christmas. Having Fr. Tshering the Gospel is proclaimed at least once a year!"

Not allowing Catholic priests to enter the country to attend to the spiritual needs of non-Bhutanese Catholics is a policy which the bishop defines as "unreasonable" and "ungrateful". In the past many Catholic priests had helped the government found and organize education in the country.  

Strict security measures taken against evangelization came when Protestant pastors began to preach the gospel to the people of Buthan, while managing to gain a few converts. The government sounded the alarm and decided to put the breaks on evangelization. 

Lepcha says that his priests are not trying to proselytize, but want at least to attend to the needs of Christians. They are victims of this anti-proselytism policy.

Fr. Varkey Perekkatt, regional director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, sees other reasons behind the hostility of Buthan officials toward Christians. He said that their forbiddance to enter Buthan stems "from our firm position in requesting the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal  since 1990."

The Jesuit refugee help center offers instruction to around 42,000 children of Bhutanese citizens who currently live Nepal's refugee camps. Nearly 15,000 families and 100 persons of Nepalese ethnic origin left Buthan in the 1990s due to ethnic persecutions. Buthan authorities refused to accept them, stating they were of Nepalese descent. Many of them, however, said that in reality their documents were confiscated by Buthan authorities.  (SF)

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