By Martin Roth
Buddhism is widely viewed as a religion of tolerance, able to co-exist with all other religions. Don’t tell that to the Christians of Sri Lanka, who have endured waves of persecution. Nor to the Christians of Bhutan.
Bhutan is a small Asian kingdom wedged between India and China. Buddhists make up three-quarters of the population, with Hindus most of the remainder, although there is also a small and growing Christian presence. The country ranks at No. 28 – moderate persecution – on the Open Doors World Watch List of Christian persecution.
The Bhutanese king is due in India later this week for India’s Republic Day celebrations. The president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, Sajan George, took the occasion to call for religious freedom for the kingdom’s Christians.
Since 2006, the Bhutanese government has introduced democratic reforms after centuries of absolute monarchy during which religions other than Buddhism were banned.
In 2008, a new constitution was adopted that, formally at least, recognised religious freedom for all Bhutanese, as long as they informed the authorities. A few Hindu temples were thus built but Christians continue to be denied the right to build their churches or hold Masses in public.
The situation has in fact worsened since anti-conversion laws were adopted in 2010. “These laws were designed to prevent forced conversions or the use of financial inducements to convert,” said Sajan George. “And they impose a three-year sentence for ‘proselytising’.
“As in some Indian states, these laws are being used to persecute Christians, on the basis of false charges with regards to forced conversions,” he explained. “Often, they are used against charities as well.”
It is perhaps ironic that Bhutan practices Vajrayana Buddhism, also called Tibetan Buddhism, as it is the Dalai Lama who is often viewed as the key figure in promoting Buddhism as a religion of tolerance.
I feature Tibetan Buddhism extensively in my novel “Military Orders,” a Christian thriller about the search for a new Dalai Lama, where I describe this style of Buddhism as “signs and wonders,” with practitioners, under the direction of a spiritual guide, forming relationships with the occult.