In Bhutan, church flexes limited freedom in Buddhist kingdom

Baptist Press
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Posted: Dec 14, 2011 5:22 PM
In Bhutan, church flexes limited freedom in Buddhist kingdom
EDITOR'S NOTE: This year's Dec. 4-11 Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention focused on the theme of "His heart, His hands, His voice -- I am Southern Baptist missions" from Acts 1:8. Each year's Lottie Moon Christmas Offering supplements Cooperative Program giving to support Southern Baptists' 5,000 international missionaries' initiatives in sharing the Gospel. This year's offering goal is $175 million. To find resources about the offering, go to imb.org.

SOUTH ASIA (BP) -- Notes of a sacred hymn fade as Dorji Sangay* reads a passage from his Bible. The small congregation follows along in their New Testaments and then discusses the verses.

From where Sangay sits cross-legged on the floor, he can look out the window and see the jagged Himalayan Mountains of his home country, Bhutan. His heart aches to go home. He was forced to leave after being tortured and released from prison in the late 1990s.

The crime he committed was sharing Christ.

Sangay's attention is drawn from the window and his "promised land" back to the Bible study when a woman starts talking to God. The prayer makes him smile. Just a few years ago, his people had no idea how to pray or sing worship songs in their language nor did they have any Bible passages. In fact, there were very few believers back then. Now, he teaches them how to do the same thing that got him arrested -- proclaiming the Gospel.

So much has changed for Bhutanese Christians during the last decade that it's nothing short of a miracle -- one that Southern Baptists helped pray into place.

In 2001, Southern Baptists committed their National Day of Prayer and Fasting for World Evangelization to the only country recognized as a Tibetan Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan. Baptists prayed for everything from Bible translations to discipleship training to greater religious freedoms.

Sangay and other Christian workers say the prayers continue to be answered.

"In the past 10 to 12 years, we have worked so hard," Sangay says. "We are sharing openly and we win lots of people to the Lord. We baptized a lot of people and we started new churches. The prayers are working."

REPRESSION EASES

In the mid-1990s, Bhutan's government banned Christianity, concerned that it could be a divisive religion if it grew too strong. It was against the law to "coerce anyone to believe differently." Persecution was widespread during this time, and Sangay was jailed and tortured several times in a four-year span.

Officially, some religious freedom was granted in 2000, but sources outside Bhutan do not credit any gains until 2007. Even now, Christians can face difficulty if they "proselytize" and are prohibited from celebrating non-Buddhist festivals.

"Bhutan has just become a democracy because of our king's initiative. Our system is slowly changing," Sangay says optimistically. "Yes, there is freedom of religion. We are allowed to have faith in Jesus now. But we are not allowed to preach."

Freedom of religion is still a tricky thing, Sangay says. Believers still are persecuted. One man was sentenced last year to a three-year prison term for showing "Christian films."

The easiest way to explain Bhutan's version of religious freedom, Sangay says, is to think about relationships. He says it is not safe to share the Gospel with strangers. "If you share with a stranger and the stranger is anti-Christian, you run the risk of him reporting you and putting you behind bars," he says. "You have to know the person and build a relationship before you can share."

Yet, Bhutanese believers do not pray that the persecution will go away. Instead, they work through it. Every time a Christian purchases a meal that is filled with sand, every time the power is turned off for the church but not the rest of the village, they pray God draws them closer and shows them how to reach more people.

BIBLE TRANSLATION

In the past decade, the New Testament has been translated into three different languages spoken among the Bhutanese. When the project started, translators had no standard way of even writing these languages. They decided to use the Tibetan script of the Buddhist temples.

The New Testament is the first book to be translated into most of these languages. Currently, a translation team is working on the Old Testament. Sometimes it takes four days to get one verse correct, but the tedious task is worth it. The visionaries want their countrymen to have "the whole story" instead of just half.

"I'm fairly good at English," Sangay says. "Yet there is nothing like reading it in your own language. Somehow, the Bible and what it's saying becomes more meaningful. People tell me they understand it now because it's speaking to them."

There are roughly a few hundred believers among Sangay's people. He makes sure all of them have a copy of the New Testament and know how to read it. He teaches them how to use it to grow in their faith and how to share with others.

While Sanjay cannot safely visit Bhutan, the church planting principles used to train believers have tremendous impact. One man started seven churches within six months after taking the training.

Sangay measures success a little differently. Christians may not see big baptism numbers or thousands of new churches. After all, Bhutan only has a population of just over 700,000. Every addition to God's Kingdom is cause for celebration, when you add in the fact that the country has been closed to Christianity for decades, how isolated the villages are and persecution is almost always results from sharing the Gospel.

Despite the obstacles, Sangay and Christian workers say multiplication is happening in some out-of-the-way locations. He sites an isolated village that is a two-day walk off the main road as an example.

"There's a small church consisting that is totally made up of new believers," Sangay says. "If we go visit them, they are more persecuted."

Every time the church meets in a home, the power and water supply are cut off. When the village has light, the home that hosts the church sits in darkness.

"They only know a few songs to worship God and a few Bible stories," Sangay says. "They are discouraged from the persecution, yet they keep worshipping and praising our God.

"We sent a sister to check on them and train them. Pray for this church," Sangay says, then adds, "Pray for all of us. Don't stop praying. There is still much to do."

*Name changed. Caroline Anderson and Susie Rain write for the International Mission Board. For more information about Bhutan, including a 30-day prayer guide, virtual prayer walk and videos, visit www.go2southasia.org/explore/exploring-bhutan and www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/6098/Bhutan-10-years-of-prayer

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