Christian Pastors Arrested in Buddhist Bhutan

Two Christian pastors in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan are being held in a detention center in a southern district for over three days while area believers are being summoned repeatedly by police, said sources inside the nation that doesn't officially recognize the Christian minority.

The pastors, identified only as Lobzang and Tandin, were picked up by police Thursday afternoon while they were holding a prayer service to dedicate a place of worship in the Khapdani village in Dorokha gewog (cluster of villages) of Samtse district, a source from the area told The Christian Post.

About 30 believers, including women and children, were also taken to the area police post for the recording of their statements, the source added. The two pastors were later moved to the Samtse Detention Center, while the others were allowed to return.

The Christian Post made several attempts to speak to the Superintendent of Police of Samtse but the calls were not answered. An official who took a phone call at the SP's office denied that police made any arrest. "We don't arrest people for religious reasons," he said, refusing to identify himself.

At least six sources, including local residents, confirmed the arrest of the two pastors. A Bhutanese pastor said no one was being allowed to speak with the arrested pastors. An area resident added that the Christians who were part of the prayer service were being asked to report to police several times.

Between 1.2 and 2 percent of the 740,000 people of Bhutan are Christian. More than 80 percent of the population is Buddhist, and Hindus make up about 18 percent.

One of the world's most isolated countries until the late 20th century, Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional democratic monarchy after a century of absolute monarchy in 2008. The tiny Christian community remained underground until 2008.

Bhutan, which is known for its policy of "gross national happiness," lays emphasis on preservation and promotion of the state-endorsed religion of Mahayana Buddhism, which is the country's "spiritual heritage," according to its constitution.

Section 4 of Article 7 of the constitution says a Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. However, only Buddhists and Hindus are legally recognized in the country.

The Religious Organizations Act of 2007, under which religious groups are required to register if they want to operate with a legal identity, says its main intent is to "benefit the religious institutions and protect the spiritual heritage of Bhutan."

Christians have sought to register a confederation under the 2007 Act, but the country's Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs has given no clear response to the minority's application.

The government maintains that Christians are free to worship in private, but sporadic incidents of harassment have been reported in the past also.

The Christian Post had earlier reported that a sub-divisional officer in the southern town of Gelephu hit an independent pastor, Pema Sherpa, on his forehead and chest, and threatened to kill him on July 31, 2012. Sherpa had allegedly refused to temporarily stop holding worship service in his home, defying the official's order.

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