NEW DELHI A court in Bhutan has sentenced a Christian to three years in prison for "attempting to promote civil unrest" by screening films on Christianity in the predominantly Buddhist country.
A local court in Gelephu, Bhutan, handed down the Oct. 6 conviction against Prem Singh Gurung, a 40-year-old ethnic Nepalese citizen from south Bhutan, according to the government-run daily Kuensel.
Gurung was arrested in July after local residents complained that he was showing Christian films in two villages. Gurung invited villagers to watch Nepali movies; between each feature, he showed films on Christianity.
Government attorneys could not prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Gurung promoted civil unrest, the daily reported, and therefore "he was charged with an attempt to promote civil unrest."
Gurung also was charged with violation of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act of 2006. Sections 105(1) and 110 of the law require that authorities examine all films before public screening.
A Christian from Bhutan's capital told Compass Direct News that the conviction of Gurung disturbed area villagers.
While Gurung has the right to appeal, it remained unclear if he had the resources to do so.
The two villages, Gonggaon and Simkharkha, are virtually inaccessible. It can take from 24 and 48 hours to reach them from the nearest road.
"Both villages do not have electricity," Kuensel reported. "But Prem Singh Gurung, with the help of some people, is believed to have carried a projector and a generator to screen the movies in the village."
More than 75 percent of Bhutan's 683,407 people are Buddhist, mainly from western and eastern parts of the country. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.
It is also estimated that around 6,000 Bhutanese, mostly from the south, are Christian in this landlocked nation between India and China. However, their presence is not officially acknowledged in the country. As a result, they practice their faith from the confines of their homes, with no Christian institution officially registered.
Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan, and the government is mandated to protect its culture and religion according to the 2008 constitution. As in other parts of south Asia, people in Bhutan mistakenly believe that Christianity is a Western faith and that missionaries give monetary benefits to convert people from other religions.
An opinion piece in Kuensel on Oct. 17 by a Bhutanese woman from New York who described herself as "an aspiring Buddhist" condemned both the conviction of Gurung, though repeating a mistaken view of Christian "tactics."
"Although we may not like the tactics used by the Christians to proselytize or 'sell' their religion to impoverished and vulnerable groups, let's not lose sight of the bigger picture, in terms of religious tolerance, and what constitutes 'promoting civil unrest,'" Sonam Ongmo wrote. "If we truly want to establish ourselves as a well-functioning democracy, with equal rights for all, let's start with one of the fundamental ones -- the right to choose one's faith. We have nothing to worry about Buddhism losing ground to Christianity, but we will if, as a predominantly Buddhist state, we start to deny people the right to their faith."
While her view is representative of liberal Buddhists in Bhutan, a reader's response in a forum on Kuensel's website reflected the harder line.
"These Christians are a cancer to our society," a reader identifying himself as The Last Dragon wrote. "They had crusades after crusades we don't need that. We are very happy with Buddhism. Once Christianity is perfect as they always claim [it] to be, then let's see."
In July, the government of Bhutan proposed an amendment in the Penal Code of Bhutan which would punish "proselytizing" that "uses coercion or other forms of inducement."
Christian persecution arose in Bhutan in the 1980s when the king began a "one-nation, one-people" campaign to "protect the country's sovereignty and cultural integrity." Ethnic Nepalese, however, protested the move on grounds of discrimination. Authorities responded militarily, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were secret Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.
An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic constitutional monarchy in March 2008, in accordance with the wish of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972-2006. Since the advent of democracy, the country has brought in many reforms, and it is generally believed that the government gradually is giving more freedom to its citizens.
The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley, are respected by almost all Bhutanese and are seen as benevolent rulers.
© Compass Direct News