Bhutan: arrests for a video-tape on Jesus

Thimpu, Bhutan – Two brothers, Benjamin and John Dai, were arrested on January 8, 2006, for having shown a video on Jesus in the home of non-Christians. News of the arrest was given by the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEARLC). The two men had been reported by a young man who had attended the screening.

Last week Benjamin received a prison sentence of three-and-a-half years, while John was sentenced to three years. They were given ten days to appeal to the court with the help of a lawyer.

Bhutan is a small isolated kingdom, the state religion of which is Mahayana Buddhism. It had been closed to Christians until 1965, but a relaxation of isolationist policies enabled some Christian NGOs, predominantly Indian, to enter the country. In theory, though not in reality, its laws permit freedom of worship. However, Christians must abide by severe rules: they cannot build churches, nor gather freely. Proselytism is illegal, but only for non-Buddists.

In the past, Bhutan’s king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, had been guilty of a serious case of ethnic cleansing against Hindu Nepalis in the country. The sovereign is however now leading the transition towards a constitutional monarchy. The new constitution of August 2005 guarantees freedom of speech, opinion, expression, thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom to receive and disseminate information, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly. There are however also clauses such as Article 7.3: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.” Article 7.21 gives the authorities an opening to restrict freedoms in order to ensure security and social harmony.

The sovereign has been minimizing these limitations and continues to affirm the importance of freedom and that peace and harmony are the responsibility of all Bhutanis. The Chief Justice likewise affirms that in a democracy there should be no discrimination against any religion, and that freedom of religion is a fundamental right of the people.

Thus, the arrest of Benjamin and John Dai would seem more something from Bhutan’s past than the new course that the king is trying to set. For this reason, WEARLC is asking for prayers that these two brothers be freed and that religious freedom be effectively recognized and invokes the blessing of the Holy Spirit on the approximately 3000 Christians in Bhutan and their ministry of worship.