International Religious Freedom Report 2005
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The law provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government limited this right in practice by barring non-Buddhist missionaries from entering the country, limiting construction of non-Buddhist religious buildings, and restricting the celebration of some non-Buddhist religious festivals and limiting others. Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, although in the southern areas many citizens openly and mostly freely practice Hinduism.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

Pressure for conformity with Mahayana Buddhist norms was reinforced through the requirement that citizens wear the traditional dress of the ethnic Ngalops, who are predominantly Buddhist, in all government buildings, monasteries, and schools. There were no reports of violence associated with pressure to conform to Mahayana norms.

There are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Bhutan; however, there is cordial and ongoing bilateral interaction, and the U.S. Government discussed religious freedom issues with the Government informally as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 18,146 square miles. Population figures vary greatly, but the Government estimated a population of 700,000. The Government held a nationwide census in May and stated that initial results would be made public at the end of 2005. Approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of the population practice Drukpa Kagyupa or Ningmapa Buddhism, both of which are disciplines of Mahayana Buddhism. The Drukpa discipline is practiced predominantly in the western and central parts of the country, although there are adherents in other regions.

Ethnic Ngalops, descendants of Tibetan immigrants, comprise the majority of the population in the western and central parts of the country. The Ngalops predominate in government and the civil service, and the monarchy has decreed their cultural norms and dress to be the standard for all citizens.

The Ningmapa school of Mahayana Buddhism is practiced predominantly in the eastern region of the country, although there are also adherents in other areas. Most living in the east are ethnic Sarchops, descendants of those thought to be the country's original inhabitants. Several Sarchops held high positions in the Government, the National Assembly, and the court system.

The Government supports both Kagyupa and Ningmapa monasteries. The royal family practices a combination of Ningmapa and Kagyupa Buddhism, and many Bhutanese believe in the concept of "Kanyin-Zungdrel," meaning "Kagyupa and Ningmapa as one."

Many citizens also respect the teachings of an animist and shamanistic faith called Bon, which revolves around the worship of nature, and predates Buddhism. Although Bon priests still can be found and Bon rituals sometimes are included in Buddhist festivals, very few citizens adhere to this faith.

Approximately one-quarter of the population is ethnic Nepalese who live mainly in the south and practice Hinduism. The Shaivite, Vaishnavite, Shakta, Ghanapathi, Puranic, and Vedic schools are represented among Hindus. Hindu temples exist in southern Bhutan, and Hindus were allowed to practice their religion in small- to medium-sized groups.

Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, are present throughout the country in very small numbers, comprising a fraction of 1 percent of the population. There was reportedly only one building used for Christian worship in the south, the only location where there was a sufficiently large concentration of Christians to sustain a church. Elsewhere, Christian families and individuals were free to practice their religion at home, although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claim that the Government discouraged open worship and both large and small gatherings. There are no Christian missionaries operating in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The law provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government limited this right in practice. NGOs report that the government discourages both large and small religious gatherings of non-Buddhists, does not allow construction of churches or non-Buddhist temples, and does not allow non-Buddhist missionaries to work in the country. Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion. Proselytism by other faiths is illegal. Although there is no legal prohibition against conversion, Bhutanese NGOs operating outside the country claimed the Government prohibited conversions by Buddhists to other faiths.

The country's Monastic Body of 3,500 monks was financed by an annual government grant and was the sole arbiter on religious matters. The body also played an advisory role to the National Assembly, the Royal Advisory Council, and the King, who consistently deferred to its pronouncements on almost all religious matters and some decisions affecting the state. Major Buddhist and Hindu holy days are also state holidays. The Special Commission for Cultural Affairs, with a Hindu priest as a member, also advises on religious matters.

Questions on family law such as marriage, divorce, adoption, and child custody were addressed under the Marriage Act of 1980, amended in 1996. Traditionally, Buddhists and Hindus have resolved questions of family law according to the citizen's religion, but this is changing. A Christian group in the country reported that family law issues for all Bhutanese, regardless of religion, were resolved under Buddhist precepts. Bhutan's evolving legal system is based on customary law and Buddhist precepts.

The Government subsidized Buddhist monasteries and shrines and provided aid to approximately one-third of the Kingdom's 12,000 monks. The Government states that it provides this support because its land reform program carried out in 1956 stripped the monastic establishment of wide tracts of fertile land for redistribution among the landless. In exchange, the Royal Government committed to provide financial support for the monasteries. By statute, 10 seats in the 150-seat National Assembly and 2 seats on the 11-member Royal Advisory Council are reserved for Buddhist monks. There are no religious stipulations on the remaining seats.

No new buildings, including new places of worship, can be constructed without government licenses. Reports by ethnic Nepalese citizens suggested that this process favored Buddhist temples over Hindu ones. The Government provided financial assistance for the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines and state funding for monks and monasteries. NGOs alleged that the Government rarely granted permission to build Hindu temples; the last report of such construction was in the early 1990s, when the Government provided funds for the construction and renovation of Hindu temples and centers of Sanskrit and Hindu learning. The Government argued that it was a matter of supply and demand, with demand for Buddhist temples far exceeding that for Hindu temples. The Government stated that it supported numerous Hindu temples in the south, where most Hindus reside, and provided some scholarships for Hindus to study Sanskrit in India.

The King also declared major Hindu festivals as national holidays, and the royal family participated in them. However, there were no Hindu temples in the capital city of Thimphu, despite the migration of many ethnic Nepalese to the city.

Followers of religions other than Buddhism and Hinduism generally were free to worship in private homes, but NGOs alleged that they could not erect religious buildings or congregate in public.

Christians stated that in prior years the Government excluded them from census registration, making it difficult for them to qualify for higher education or government jobs. There were no reports of the Government excluding Christians from the May 2005 census. One Christian group alleged that personal prejudices may have led government officials to discriminate, such as by denying promotions to the handful of Christians in government service. The group commented that while there are cases where they think higher authorities are directing the discrimination, they stated that the Buddhist clergy is not the driving force behind these actions. This group, and others, also reported that Christian religious meetings must be held discreetly, especially in rural areas, for fear of the authorities. They claimed that there were no Christian churches in the country and that the Government would not grant approval for any such building.

Some NGOs reported increased intimidation by the Government of persons who do not look ethnically Ngalop, most of whom are Buddhists. Such actions reportedly included stopping persons at designated checkpoints and asking for their identity documents. The Government claimed the identity checks were part of an effort to control illegal residents; United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) camps were reportedly based in southern areas of the country until the Government ousted those terrorists in 2003.

NGO representatives living outside of the country and dissidents reported that only Drukpa Kagyupa and Ningmapa Buddhist religious teaching is permitted in schools and that Buddhist prayer is compulsory in all government-run schools. The Government contended that Buddhist teaching is permitted only in monastic schools and that religious teaching is forbidden in other schools. NGO interlocutors confirmed that although students take part in a prayer session each morning, it is non-denominational and not compulsory.

The Government requires all citizens, when in public places, to wear the traditional dress of the Ngalop majority; however, it enforced this law strictly only for visits to Buddhist religious buildings, monasteries, government offices, and schools and for attendance at official functions and public ceremonies. Some citizens commented that enforcement of this law was arbitrary and sporadic.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Dissidents claimed that the Government prohibits religious conversion from Buddhism to other religions. Foreign missionaries were not permitted to proselytize, but international Christian relief organizations and Jesuit priests were active in education and humanitarian activities. An NGO has reported that some Christians did not worship openly for fear of discrimination; however, this claim could not be corroborated.

Certain senior civil servants, regardless of religion, are required to take an oath of allegiance to the King, the country, and the people. The oath does not have religious content, but a Buddhist lama administers it. Dissidents alleged that applicants have been asked their religion before receiving government services.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Authorities discriminated against ethnic Nepalese residents and citizens in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when many were forcibly expelled (although others may have left voluntarily). Although the causes of this official discrimination and the expulsions were cultural, economic, and political, to the degree that their Hinduism identified them as members of the ethnic Nepalese minority, religion might have been a secondary factor. The Government contended that many of those expelled in the early 1990s were illegal immigrants with no right to citizenship or residency and that other ethnic Nepalese "voluntarily emigrated" at that time. Some of those expelled are petitioning for the right to return, although none has yet returned. More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese continued to live in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. (For a more detailed discussion, see the 2004 Country Report on Human Rights Practices.)

The Government resettled Bhutanese citizens from other parts of the country on land in the south vacated by the expelled ethnic Nepalese, a majority of whom were Hindu, in the early 1990s. Human rights groups maintained that this action prejudiced any possibility for land restoration to returning refugees. The Government maintained that this was not its first resettlement program and that ethnic Nepalese citizens from the south sometimes were resettled in other parts of the country.

In April 2004, a religious freedom website alleged that following Easter Sunday services, police raided three Protestant house churches in the Sarpang district in the southern part of the country. There were no arrests; however, church members allegedly were warned to stop meeting and told that the Government viewed their meetings as "terrorist activities." The Government denied these reports as totally false. No new information was available concerning this case.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Improvements in Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs and well-informed sources stated that the Government in early 2005 began to issue national identity cards to ethnic Nepalese who have family members living in refugee camps in Nepal. This was a marked change in government policy and could point to a greater acceptance of these predominantly Hindu persons as bona fide Bhutanese citizens.

There have been some attempts to promote interfaith understanding. Monks from the country's two schools of Buddhism, Kagyupa and Ningmapa, undertook regular exchanges. The King's example of making Hindu festivals official holidays and observing them also had a positive effect on citizens' attitudes.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Governmental discrimination against ethnic Nepalese in the late 1980s and early 1990s arose in part from a desire to preserve the country's Buddhist culture against the influence of a growing population of ethnic Nepalese with different cultural and religious traditions. It also was a response to increased political assertiveness of the ethnic Nepalese community.

During the reporting period, the Government and many Buddhists remained preoccupied with fears of potential Nepalese domination. Societal pressures toward non-Buddhists were reflected in official and unofficial efforts to impose the dress and cultural norms of the Buddhist majority on all citizens. While there were no reports of the repetition of the excesses of the late 1980s and early 1990s, societal and governmental pressure for conformity with Drukpa Kagyupa norms was prevalent.

Some of the country's few Christians, who are mostly ethnic Nepalese living in the south, claimed that they were harassed and discriminated against by the Government, local authorities, and non-Christian citizens.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

There are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Bhutan. Informal contacts between the two governments took place frequently. During these exchanges, governmental discrimination against the ethnic Nepalese minority was discussed.

In October 2004, senior State Department officials and a U.S. Embassy officer from New Delhi discussed religious freedom in the context of the refugee issue and the draft Constitution in Thimphu. During the meeting, the officials expressed hope that the upcoming Constitution would include guarantees of religious freedom and protection for minority populations. The officials also commented that the Government needs to find a lasting solution for the refugees in Nepal, who are mostly Hindu, in order to demonstrate that the Government is committed to a policy of religious tolerance.

In March and April, a senior Embassy official and a high-level State Department official traveled to the country and discussed religious freedom, the draft Constitution, and the refugee issue with senior members of the Government. The U.S. Government has also worked to promote religious freedom and other democratic values by sponsoring several citizens to travel to the United States under the International Visitors Program.