Newspaper in Bhutan Shields Official Accused of Attacking Pastor

A government official beat and threatened to kill a pastor in the Buddhist-majority nation of Bhutan last week, The Christian Post reported. However, a local newspaper claims it was a "lie," misquoting the victim and apparently siding with the official.

Pema Wangda, a sub-divisional officer (known as "Dungpa" in the local Dzongkha language) in the southern town of Gelephu, hit an independent pastor, Pema Sherpa, on his forehead and chest, took out a sword, and threatened to kill him on July 31.

The official was angry because the pastor was reportedly not willing to stop gathering for worship services as temporarily demanded by the administration for alleged security reasons.

The Bhutanese, a bi-weekly newspaper based in the capital city of Thimphu, claimed that the reported incident "turned out to be a lie" after its reporter "conversed with both the parties and eye witnesses." However, the newspaper contradicted itself by quoting the pastor as repeating that "the Dungpa grabbed him by the chest and threatened him with his Patang (ceremonial sword)."

The article (, published in the local newspaper last Friday, based its claim on the official's version and that of an alleged witness.

"Dungpa Pema Wangdi said when he was trying to wear his patang (sword) the pastor might have mistaken it as an attempt to use it on him," The Bhutanese quoted the official as claiming. The newspaper then quoted the Gup, or head of the administrative unit of Gelephu, identified only as Tashi, as saying, "They only exchanged words and I did not see the Dungpa hitting Pema Sherpa."

The Bhutanese claimed Tashi "was present at the site." However, a source close to the pastor, who requested anonymity fearing reprisal by local authorities, said the pastor told him that Tashi wasn't present at the site of the incident.

The newspaper also quoted the accused official as saying that Pastor Sherpa had "submitted a letter of apology in which he stated that he will not repeat such a thing again," referring to a recent notification citing security concerns and requiring approval by the administration before holding "huge gatherings."

The source said the pastor had not given any letter of apology to the official. The pastor telephoned The Bhutanese reporter Tanden Zangmo after reading the article and complained about being misquoted. "Can the Dungpa produce the letter he claimed the pastor gave him, or was it a lie by the newspaper?" asked the source.

It was not clear whether the notification was disseminated also to Buddhist and Hindu groups in the town.

Of the roughly 700,000 people in Bhutan, a small nation sandwiched between India and China, more than 70 percent practice Mahayana Buddhism. Hindus account for about 20 percent, and Christians number around 12,000 by conservative estimates.

The Constitution of Bhutan, which became a constitutional democratic monarchy in 2008 after being an absolute monarchy for around 100 years, provides for religious freedom. However, only Buddhists and Hindus are recognized in the country legally. The government does not allow Christians to construct a church building or a Christian cemetery, though Christians are generally allowed to meet within their homes for worship.

Private media is fairly new in the country, and is struggling to survive due to a crisis in advertising revenue. While media are generally able to report on political matters freely, there is an unwritten code that few dare to violate. There is little freedom to report on issues related to national security, for example. Religion is seen as tied to the security of the nation, which seeks to mark and protect its borders by maintaining – using law – the country's distinct culture, which is rooted in Buddhism.

The country follows the unique policy of "gross national happiness," an alternative to conventional economic yardsticks to measure a nation's progress. But some citizens do not appear to be happy.

"Principal human rights problems included the regulation of religion, limitations on activities that the government viewed as undermining national identity and stability," noted the "2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Bhutan," released by the U.S. State Department on May 24.

"Followers of religions other than Buddhism and Hinduism generally were free to worship in private homes, but NGOs allege they are prohibited from erecting religious buildings or congregating in public," said the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report on Bhutan, released by the State Department last September. "Conversions to Christianity took place, but some Christian groups claimed that religious meetings must be held discreetly. They also alleged that the official government record does not allow them to note their religious affiliation, although the government's policy on this issue appears to be changing."