For the first time in Bhutan's history, the long-isolated Buddhist nation's government seems ready to grant official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.
Chhoedey Lhentshog, the authority that regulates religious organizations, discussed at its December meeting how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, according to agency secretary Dorji Tshering.
Thus far, only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered and thus are permitted to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.
Asked if Christians were likely to enjoy the same rights soon, Tshering replied, "Absolutely"—an apparent paradigm shift in policy, given that Bhutan's National Assembly banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions in resolutions passed in 1969 and 1979, respectively.
"The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country's spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions," he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one faith among its citizens.
According to a source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization, and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan—which would call for Christian unity in the country.
The government's willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. Thus, its policy shift is evoking a mixed response among the country's estimated 6,000 Christians.
Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years in prison for screening films on Christianity. The government is in the process of introducing a clause into the country's penal code that bans conversions by force or allurement.
Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by discouraging social tensions and unrest.
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