Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan Forbids Public Christian Prayer

Government Fears Conversions, Says Bishop

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THIMPHU, Bhutan, JAN. 28, 2004 (Zenit.org).- In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Christians are forbidden to celebrate or pray in public and priests are denied visas to enter, says a bishop in neighboring India.



Bishop Stephen Lepcha, whose Diocese of Darjeeling includes the kingdom, explained that Buddhism is the official religion of Bhutan, and every other form of religion and mission is prohibited. Until a few years ago, Christians who had emigrated there from India and Nepal were free to celebrate Mass in public.

But since the start of the millennium the kingdom has outlawed public, non-Buddhist religious services and imprisoned those who violate the law, the bishop told AsiaNews.

"Indian priests are denied entry visas," though other citizens from the subcontinent can get visas, said Bishop Lepcha.

Inhabitants of Darjeeling have Far Eastern features, making them easily mistaken for Mongols. This makes their entry into the country more difficult. Priests with different physical characteristics, typical of other regions of India, enter the country more easily, at least as tourists.

Bishop Lepcha explained that authorities are more reluctant in the cases of priests with Mongol features, since their physical resemblance to Bhutan's inhabitants allows them to integrate better into the community -- and potentially win converts to Christianity. Fear of proselytism is a source of government "paranoia," said Bishop Lepcha.

Officially, Bhutan authorities say that it is possible to celebrate Mass in private homes. But "how can Christians celebrate Mass in private, if the authorities don't permit priests to enter the country?" the bishop asked.

Strict measures against evangelization came when Protestant pastors began to preach the Gospel to the people of Bhutan -- a kingdom about half the size of Indiana, bordered by China and India -- and managed to gain a few converts. The government sounded the alarm and clamped down on evangelization.

Bishop Lepcha stressed that his priests are not trying to proselytize, but want at least to attend to the needs of Christians.