Thimphu (AsiaNews/EDA) - A Bhutanese court sentenced two Protestant clergymen to several years in prison for engaging in "unauthorised fundraising" and organising a meeting for the purpose of worship "without the necessary permits." The court made its ruling on 10 September in Dorokha, Samtse District, near the Indo-Bhutanese border, in the extreme south of the country.
According to reports from Eglise d'Asie (EDA), 30-year-old Rev Tandin (Tendin) Wangyal (Yangwal), a married father of three, will have to serve a sentence of four years. He ended up in the dock after receiving financial aid "from Christian organisations abroad" (just over US$ 11,000), which, according to the prosecution, were needed to carry out "Christian proselytising."
At the same time, Rev B Thap, better known by his nickname of Lobzang, 56, will serve two years and four months (the sentence was suspended and he was released on bail) for helping Rev Wangyal arrange a meeting "without authorisation."
The interior minister defended the convictions, claiming that the two had violated the Penal Code of Bhutan. However, during three hearings, the indictment was repeatedly changed and there is no substantial evidence to support the prosecution's allegations.
The two men were arrested on 5 March as they were taking a sick child to a hospital. They had arrived the previous evening in a village in the south (Khapdani) to prepare a three-day seminar at the request of a group of local Christians, about thirty in all.
They were scheduled to make a presentation in the evening of 4 March, during the ceremony of laying the first stone of the future home of one of the local Christians.
At the time of the arrest, police seized computers, cell phones and a projector.
The two clergymen deny any wrongdoing and have ten days to appeal in court in Samtse.
In 2006, the government of Bhutan began to promote formal democracy after centuries of absolute monarchy that forbade the practice of religions other than Buddhism.
Adopted in 2008, the new Constitution recognises - at least formally - religious freedom for all Bhutanese, so long as they report it to the appropriate authorities.
In recent years, some Hindu temples have been built. However, even now Christians cannot build churches or schools, publish Bibles or celebrate Mass in public. In fact, Christians are still considered an "avant-garde of the West" and are often perceived as a threat to "Bhutan's national identity," which is closely associated with Buddhism. In case of conversion, a person may even lose their citizenship.
Worship is limited to the private sphere and foreign missionaries are not allowed. There are no Christian cemeteries or sections in existing cemeteries for Christians to bury their loved ones.
According to official statistics, which date back to 2005, 75 per cent of Bhutan's population of approximately 700,000 people is Buddhist, 22 per cent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin, whilst the rest are divided between Christians and other religions.
According to local Protestant sources, Christians number about 20,000, including several hundreds of Catholics. However, these numbers are difficult to validate.