Archbishop on secret visit to Bhutan’s Christians, first in 18 years
by mons. Thomas Menamparampil, sdb
Bhutan’s Christian community is growing, but authorities have forbidden all forms of proselytism, will not allow the building of churches and the public in celebration of masst. Msgr. Menamparampi, Archbishop of Guwahati (India), speaks to AsiaNews about the lives of the small Bhutanese Christian communities, many of which are never visited by a prelate. Comparing them with the first community of Acts of the Apostles, the Archbishop describes the zeal and courage of these faithful, largely Protestant, witnesses of Christ, despite government abuses and restrictions.

Timphu (AsiaNews) - Forced to pray in their homes, discriminated against in education and in public office and always closely monitored by authorities, the Christian community in Bhutan is growing. This has emerged from the recent visit of Msgr. Thomas Menamparampi, Archbishop of Guwahati (India). The prelate spoke to AsiaNews about his journey that began March 9 and ended in the last few days, where he encountered the situation of Catholics and Protestants from nine cities and villages in the country.

Msgr. Menamparampi managed to enter the small Himalayan kingdom as part of a training program for young Bhutanese, after nearly 20 years of continuous prohibitions by the authorities. His last visit to the Christian communities took place in 1993. To date, the authorities have not allowed the entry of missionaries. The country lies within the Diocese of Darjeeling (India), but the government prohibits all forms of proselytism, it has banned the construction of churches and the public in celebration of mass. To date, the only priest admitted in Bhutan is Fr. Kinley, SJ, who arranges with the permission of government training programs and education for young people, although in recent years some priests have been able to periodically officiate at private masses.

I started my journey on March 9, beginning from Phuntsholing. There were three Catholic friends with me who have been giving training to young people from Bhutan during the last few years. Our journey took us to Geddu, Thimphu (the capital), Wangdi, Tongsa, Bumthang, Mongar, Tashigang, Kanglung and Sandrup Jongkhar. We came across some two to three hundred people in little groups at some 10-15 places in different parts of the kingdom. That gave us a fairly good idea of the situation.

To begin with, I said mass for the small Catholic community at Thimphu on March 11th. They gather together quietly in a small inconspicuous hall as they used to do during the last few decades. They remembered my last visit to them some 18 years ago when Fr. Mackay, SJ, was still working in Bhutan. After his death, there has been no Catholic missionary in the kingdom. However, Bhutan, being under the care of Darjeeling Diocese, someone from there has been coming periodically to give mass to this Catholic community. In recent years it has been Fr.Kinley, SJ, who is related to the royal family of Bhutan, that comes to meet the community and celebrate the Eucharist for them. This community is considered an old group of Christian believers in the kingdom and are not disturbed by the Authorities at their quiet worship every week. They have been maintaining a low-profile image before the public from the time of the previous king. Many of them had accepted the Catholic faith when they or their parents were in Darjeeling (India). They have remained faithful. A few foreigners also join them in their worship once in a way.

The rest of the communities that I visited with my three friends were mostly of various independent Churches, often with a Pentacostal background. Everywhere we were welcomed enthusiastically, though they knew that we were Catholics and that I was an Archbishop. They were greatly edified that we had taken so much trouble to come and visit and encourage them. The altitude of many of the places we visited was about 2500 metres. It was snowing in some places. The long winding roads were exhausting and it took us some seven hours of drive every day from one place to another. That is what made them appreciate our visit all the more. Small communities of 10-20 families in each place received us warmly and wanted us to stay a longer time with them and teach them. Not all these groups are in touch with each other. At each place there were some young people to whom we had given training. These young people were our helpers at different places and it was with their help that we were able to organize our tour.  

I found the believers very fervent in their faith and eager to learn more about Christianity. They loved their Bible and a number of them were familiar enough with the texts. The pastors were not too well trained and they themselves admitted that they needed to learn more. They were willing to learn too. They eagerly wait for visiting Christian believers who can give them further instruction. We did not come across any contentious groups, though there could be some sections like that. The Christians pray fervently and express their needs to the Lord with profound faith. Some of the groups we met belonged to organized Churches. Some, on the other hand, remain still unaffiliated. Some really gave the impression of being ‘self-made’ Christians. They are still in search. We thought we were living in the days of the Acts of the Apostles. We experienced among them a sense of warmth, intimacy, faith, eager enthusiasm, expectation, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

These Christians gather in private homes and pray together from time to time. Different families host the prayer-meeting in turn. Their worship consists in singing hymns for a considerable length of time, reading the Bible, explaining the Word, and concluding with prayers. Sharing of experiences and witnessing are greatly appreciated. They occasionally invite some non-Christian friends to join them in prayer, who after a while decide to opt for the Faith, especially when they obtain healings. There is no doubt that the Christian numbers in Bhutan have been increasing in the recent years. Some spoke of over 10,000 believers. There is greater response to the Gospel among the ethnic Nepali settlers in the kingdom. They have all become Bhutanese citizens today. The evangelical Churches have made rapid progress in Nepal itself, and, possibly, that vibration is reaching the Nepalis elsewhere as well. It will call for some more time before we can interpret this trend. Most of the Nepalis are from a Hindu background. The ethnic Bhutanese on the other hand are Buddhists and are related to the Tibetan race. In a nation of approximately 800,000 people, the respective proportion of the ethnic groups may be, 60% Bhutanese and 40% Nepalis.

The 10,000 or so Christians are affiliated to various denominations. But they have intended to accept Christianity, not the specific teachings of any particular denomination. Even if their knowledge of Christianity is at an initial stage, their fervour is great. In Nepal itself it is said there could be hundreds of thousands of Christian believers already, who enjoy greater freedom than in Bhutan. In Bhutan, on the other hand, public Christian worship is not allowed. But it seems that the Government is not going out of the way to search out and persecute the Christians. As long as they worship in quiet, there is no direct harassment. But conversion-making activities would be unacceptable. Believers gather in hidden places, in extensions of store-rooms and go-downs, in inner chambers (as the Apostles gathered in the Upper Chamber)…usually outside the towns. I began to understand better how the Roman Christians had gathered in the ‘catacombs’ for worship and encouraged each other and preserved their faith amidst persecution.

I said there is no direct harassment, but there are various ways in which the authorities show that new forms of religion are discouraged. When one writes in an application-form that one is a Christian, he/she is not likely get an appointment to a job or win a promotion; he/she may not get admission for higher studies. There are many other ways too of showing that the Authorities are displeased. At one of the places that we visited they said that their electricity was cut off, because, possibly, the Christians were gathering there regularly for prayer. The reason for the punitive action was not given. They were warned that their water-supply might also stop, and even further that the town-planning might require the demolition of their house! The reasons given were not the real reasons for such measures. Such steps are often taken when there is a complaint from neighbours.

However, I did not find any of the Christians discouraged or over-worried. They have seen harder times. They look forward to the time when they can worship publicly. They believe in the gentle ways of persuasion that is more typical of a Buddhist society, in order to induce change. Some Christian groups are already planning quietly to build their places of worship. But they will need to be careful. They know that the lobby of the Buddhist monks is powerful with the Government and it will put all obstacles on the way of Christianity. The monks keep saying that they attach great importance to the Bhutanese culture and it should not be compromised.

The issue of ‘culture’ is always very sensitive in Asia. Most people do not know how to make a distinction between culture and religion.  In any case, it is not merely a matter of academic distinction, but closely linked with a community’s identity. Only if it can be shown experientially that a distinction can be made and that it does not compromise one’s cultural identity, can one make one’s religious choices freely. It is in this area that Christian communities have not always succeeded. Witnesses to the Christian faith also have not always been successful. But Asians are deep. Even simple villagers are able to judge what is genuine and what is not, what enriches their identity and enhances their culture and what does not. And they keep making their choices.

Our challenge in such situations is to invite people to deeper reflection about their identity, their task on earth and their ultimate destiny. Young people in Bhutan are gifted and are eager to learn. They come out for training programmes with great interest. We are trying to build up supportive groups who sponsor formation courses, skills-imparting programmes, and motivation-tours to different parts of South Asia. We are hoping that friends will come forward to help such training courses. The youth of Bhutan deserve this help and they will work wonders in the days to come.

These words of Isaiah 2:2-4 have always inspired me from my earliest days :“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many people shall come and say: ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths’”. It is not for no reason that the Lord has lifted the Himalayas above all the hills and made them his own. We will need to discern the ways of the Lord on these high mountains and among these wonderful people.