Bhutanese House Churches Raided After Easter Services

Friday, April 23, 2004

Police warn church members against gathering for worship.

Special to Compass Direct

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 23 (Compass) -- Three house churches in Sarpang district of southern Bhutan were visited by police on the night of April 11 following their Easter Sunday services. According to a respected Christian leader in Bhutan, the church members were warned to discontinue meeting together for worship. The raids seem to confirm a growing crackdown against Christian activity in Bhutan.

The source, who cannot be named for security reasons, said police swooped down on three homes in Gelephu subdivision of Sarpang district after Sunday services. Most of the church members had already left when the police arrived. Police questioned the few remaining believers and asked for the names of others who had attended the meetings.

No arrests were made. However the three pastors and one elder were asked to report daily at 9 a.m. to the administrative office of Gelephu subdivision.

Officials also reprimanded the homeowners and warned them not to allow their homes to be used as worship facilities. Aside from this warning, they took no further legal action.

According to the source, police told the believers that their meetings were an expression of support for international Christian organizations which had been labeled as “terrorist” groups by the Bhutanese government.

Officially, the Christian faith does not exist in Bhutan, and it is illegal for Christians to gather for public worship.

Bhutanese authorities say it is possible to celebrate mass in private homes. However, a report from the Catholic news agency Zenit in January 2004 showed that Catholics are also facing greater repression in Bhutan.

Until the end of the 1990s, priests who emigrated from neighboring India and Nepal could celebrate mass in public. However from the year 2000 onwards, Bhutan outlawed “public non-Buddhist religious services, and imprisoned those who violate the law,” according to Indian Bishop Stephen Lepcha, whose diocese includes Bhutan.

Bishop Lepcha said he believed the crackdown was a response to Protestant pastors who were preaching the gospel and gaining converts. He claimed that Catholic priests were not trying to proselytize but simply wanted to attend to the needs of Christians.

Bhutan is still recovering from a wave of violence that erupted in December 2003. A second source who works in Bhutan told Compass that severe fighting broke out just before Christmas between the Royal Bhutan Army and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a group of Indian separatists who had occupied the eastern districts of Bhutan.

The Bhutanese government asked the rebels to evacuate the land but they refused. Bhutan then asked the Indian government to deploy forces in a joint effort to push out the Indian insurgents. Because of this unrest, many believers in the area had to abandon their plans for Christmas services.

“The pastors I met told me that some husbands were made to watch their wives being raped at gunpoint by soldiers of the Indian and Bhutanese armies,” this source explained. “Countless corpses were fallen on the ground and they were not permitted to bury or burn them.”

“At that point they were afraid that persecution against the believers might also erupt. In fact, in some places it had already started. When any natural calamities or untoward incidents take place in Bhutan, they blame the Christians. They say, ‘It’s because you have believed in a foreign god that our gods are pouring out their wrath upon us.’”

In February 2004, the source reported, “The situation in Bhutan is still very tense, but believers are strong in the Lord. The operation against the ULFA militants is ongoing. This has really jeopardized the life of innocent people, including the believers.

“Bhutan is in a very pathetic state at this time. We believe the government of Bhutan is secretly planning an operation against Christianity. In many ways, Christians are already deprived of their national rights, like children’s education, government jobs and even setting up private businesses.

“The Buddhist monks are persuading the government to enforce this operation against Christians. In fact, His Majesty of Bhutan is not against the Christians but he is bound by the religious law in Bhutan. That is, ‘one nation, one religion.’”

Meanwhile, believers in Bhutan have asked for prayer. “Dearly beloved people of God, we need your prayer support and words of encouragement. Please do pray for all the believers in Bhutan, that we would remain faithful and strong in Jesus.”