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By BosNewsLife Asia Service
NEW DELHI/THIMPHU (BosNewsLife)– A court in Bhutan has sentenced a Christian to three years imprisonment for “attempting to promote civil unrest” by showing films about Christianity, underscoring international concerns about the situation of religious minorities in the heavily Buddhist Himalayan nation, BosNewsLife learned Friday, October 29.
Prem Singh Gurung, a 40-year-old ethnic Nepalese citizen living in southern Bhutan, was detained four months ago while showing Christian films in the Gonggaon and Simkharka villages, local Christians said.
The two villages do not have electricity and it is believed that Gurung carried a projector and generator into the areas to show the films.
A court in Gelephu, a border town near India, reportedly said Gurung had violated Sections 105(1) and 110 of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act, requiring authorities to screen all films before public presentation.
It was not immediately clear Friday, October 29, when and if Gurung could appeal against the ruling.
Bhutan’s government has reportedly defended the sentencing saying that although they respect freedom of religion, “no person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”
The officials, however, “haven’t demonstrated any evidence of forceful conversion by Mr. Gurung,” complained International Christian Concern (ICC), a Washington-based rights group closely following the case.
“The international human rights standard in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media.’ Mr. Gurung’s actions are protected under this provision. We urge Bhutan to respect its obligations as a member of the international community by releasing Mr. Gurung,” added ICC President, Jeff King.
In Bhutan, Buddhism is seen as the state religion, which the government says it must protect according to its 2008 constitution. The U.S. State Department said in a recent report that “though constitutional democracy has helped to improve the human rights situation in the country, difficulties with the regulation of religion and some discrimination against the ethnic Nepalese minority remained.”
Rights groups have complained about what they view as persecution against minority Christians in the tiny, remote and impoverished kingdom nestling in the Himalayas between its powerful neighbors, India and China.
Authorities have since the 1990s expelled thousands of ethnic Nepalese, including Christians, to the Nepalese side of the border as part of efforts to “protect” Buddhist culture. Some 100,000 refugees live in United Nations-supervised camps across the border in Nepal.
The Bhutanese monarchy says it promotes the philosophy of “Gross National Happiness”, which strives to achieve a balance between the spiritual and the material.
However rights activists claim the majority Buddhist culture and the lack of any political representation has led to deep resentment among the ethnic Nepali community in the south.
Christians officially comprise less than one percent of the country’s population of roughly 700,000 people.