RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--News of a wave of repression against the churches of Bhutan recently reached the West -- just as Christians are preparing to pray for the tiny Himalayan nation wedged between China, Tibet and India.
Bhutanese Christians, a relative handful in the overwhelmingly Buddhist land, are facing some of the strongest persecution they have yet seen, according to Indian Baptists who alerted the Baptist World Alliance in late April.
Believers attending churches in Bhutan in April reportedly were confronted by authorities who recorded their names. Some ran away in fear of being identified and punished. Police also have closed churches, interrogated pastors and threatened them with imprisonment -- demanding that Christians stop evangelistic activities.
Bhutanese Christians fear other actions, and the Indian Baptists asked for urgent prayers.
According to reports in early May received directly from Bhutanese believers, Christians are being told to pledge in writing that they will not gather to worship or evangelize or else face the loss of free education for their children, loss of access to free medical care and other penalties.
"Very harsh persecution has started in Bhutan," one Bhutanese Christian said. "Christians are asked either to leave their religion or their country. In some places they are beaten very badly. They are not allowed to gather anymore. Freedom of religion has been taken away. Christians now face termination of employment, expulsion from the country, cancellation of trade licenses and denial of all state benefits."
The persecution reportedly began to grow last year after Bhutan's king made a speech advising his people they would be better off following one religion: Buddhism. Taking their cue from that speech, regional officials intensified repression of Christians -- possibly with the encouragement of Buddhist leaders who claim Christianity will bring division in the family and the nation.
These events are unfolding as Southern Baptists and other Christians plan to lift united prayers for the unreached Drukpa people of Bhutan from 6 p.m. Friday, June 1, through 6 p.m. Saturday, June 2, during the annual Day of Prayer and Fasting for World Evangelization.
Coincidence? One Christian observer familiar with Bhutan and the Himalayan region doesn't think so.
"This is the Drukpa's moment" to hear the gospel, he said. "It is the day of the Lord in the Himalayas. God promises in Psalm 2:8, 'Ask of me, and I will surely give the nations ... .'
"If I were to tell you there is a possibility that the Drukpa would pass from the darkness and hopeless self-effort of Buddhism to the light and liberty of the Savior, would you be willing to give yourself for that cause? The apostle James says we do not have because we do not ask."
For centuries the Drukpa have carried on their customs and religious practices with little variation. Because of their isolation in the treacherous terrain of the Himalayas and resistance to change, they are virtually untouched by the gospel.
Of more than 200,000 Drukpa, perhaps 20 are evangelical believers.
Bhutan, the only country officially recognized as a Tibetan Buddhist kingdom, incorporates Buddhism into every aspect of life. Mixed with ancient folk practices of shamanism, magic, ancestor worship and divination, the religious landscape appears in fearsome symbols and faces of demons painted on houses.
Bhutanese leaders consider Christianity a threat to the preservation of their culture, and Christians in the country may be denied education and lose jobs and citizenship.
"[The Drukpa] are stuck in a cycle of deception," says another Christian acquainted with Bhutan. "The practices are very much akin to the occult, as there is so much superstition about everything."
How urgent is the need to pray for open doors of witness? Consider a recent incident elsewhere in the region:
A Christian worker was preaching the gospel in a village. After hearing about salvation and freedom from fear in Jesus Christ, the village chief sadly asked the preacher, "Tell me the truth; why did you not come here two weeks earlier? I consulted a sorcerer to gain goodwill in my family. He performed some religious rituals in my house and said that if I sacrificed three small children before the moon came up on a full-moon night, prosperity would never leave my home.
"I was carried away by his words and kidnapped two 5-year old boys from a neighboring village, and I sacrificed them to the gods. But I failed in all my attempts in kidnapping the third child. Finally, I took my 7-year-old son and sacrificed him also.
"If you had told me about this Jesus a little earlier, then I would have never killed those innocent children. Why did you come so late?" The chief then wept bitterly.