International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The law provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government limited this right in practice. The Drukpa discipline of the Kagyupa school, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, is the state religion.

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

Societal pressure for conformity with Drukpa Kagyupa norms was prevalent. There are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Bhutan; however, the U.S. Government discussed religious freedom issues with the Government informally in the context of its overall dialogue and policy of promoting human rights.

There are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Bhutan; however, the U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government informally in the context of its overall dialogue and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 18,146 square miles. Population figures vary greatly, but the Government estimated a population of approximately 700,000. Approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of the declared population practice either Drukpa Kagyupa or Ningmapa Buddhism. The Drukpa discipline is practiced predominantly in western and central parts of the country, although there are adherents in other regions. Government-supported monasteries also practice the Kagyupa sect of Buddhism. 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 their cultural norms and dress have been declared by the monarchy to be the standard for all citizens.

The Ningmapa school of Mahayana Buddhism is practiced predominantly in the eastern part of the country, although there are adherents in other parts of Bhutan. Most of those living in the east are ethnic Sarchops, the 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 royal family alternately practices the Ningmapa and Kagyupa branches of Buddhism.

There is a tradition of respect among many citizens for the teachings of an animist and shamanistic faith called Bon, which revolves around the worship of nature. The arrival of this faith to the country predated that of Buddhism. Bon priests still can be found in the country, but very few citizens adhere to this faith. Bon rituals sometimes are included in the observance of Buddhist festivals.

Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, are present in very small numbers throughout the country. There was reportedly only one building used for Christian worship in the south of the country, the only location where the concentration of Christians was sufficiently large to sustain a church building. Elsewhere, families and individuals practiced their religion at home.

Approximately one-quarter to one-third of the population, ethnic Nepalese who live mainly in the south, practice Hinduism. The Shaivite, Vaishnavite, Shakta, Ghanapath, Paurinic, and Vedic schools are represented among Hindus.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The law provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government limited this right in practice. Proselytization is illegal, and Bhutanese NGOs operating outside the country claimed the Government prohibits conversions. Dissidents also contended that Buddhist texts were the only printed religious materials permitted to enter the country. The Government vehemently denied these claims, and asserted that its citizens are free to practice any religion openly.

The Monastic Body (or Monk Body) comprised of 3,500 monks, was financed by an annual government grant and was the sole arbiter on religious matters in the country. The body also played an advisory role in the National Assembly, the Royal Advisory Council, and with the King. The King consistently deferred to the body's pronouncements on almost all religious matters and many decisions affecting the state.

Questions of family law, such as inheritance, marriage, divorce, child custody, and adoption, traditionally are resolved according to a citizen's religion: Buddhist tradition for the majority of the population and Hindu tradition for the ethnic Nepalese.

The Government subsidized monasteries and shrines of the Drukpa discipline and provided aid to approximately one-third of the Kingdom's 12,000 monks. By statute, 10 seats in the 150-seat National Assembly and 2 seats on the 11-member Royal Advisory Council are reserved for monks of the Drukpa discipline.

Religious communities must secure government licenses before constructing new places of worship. Reports by ethnic Nepalese citizens suggested that this process was biased toward Buddhist temples. The Government provided financial assistance for the construction of Drukpa Kagyupa and Ningmapa Buddhist temples and shrines. Monks and monasteries of the Ningmapa school also received some state funding. The Government provided some funding for the construction of new Hindu temples and centers of Sanskrit and Hindu learning and for the renovation of existing temples and places of learning. The Government also provided some scholarships for Sanskrit studies at Hindu-language universities in India. Followers of religions other than Buddhism and Hinduism generally were free to worship in private homes, but could not erect religious buildings or congregate in public. NGOs reported that permission from the Government to build a Hindu temple was required but rarely granted. There were no Hindu temples in Thimphu, despite the migration of many ethnic Nepalese to the capital city. The King has declared major Hindu festivals to be national holidays, and the royal family participates in them.

NGO representatives living outside of the country reported that Drukpa Kagyupa and Ningmapa Buddhist religious teaching is permitted in schools, but that other religious teaching is not. The Government contended that Buddhist teaching only is permitted in monastic schools, and that religious teaching of any kind is not permitted in other schools. Buddhist prayer is compulsory in all government-run schools, according to dissidents.

The Government requires all citizens, when in public places, to wear the traditional dress of the Buddhist majority and strictly enforced this law for visits to Buddhist religious buildings, monasteries, government offices, schools, and when attending official functions and public ceremonies. However, some citizens commented that enforcement of this law was arbitrary and sporadic. Government efforts to institute policies designed to preserve the cultural dominance of the Ngalong ethnic group, to change citizenship requirements, and to control illegal immigration resulted in political protests, ethnic conflict, and repression of ethnic Nepalese in southern districts during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Dissidents claimed that the Government prohibits religious conversions. Foreign missionaries were not permitted to proselytize, but international Christian relief organizations and Jesuit priests were active in education and humanitarian activities. An NGO reported that some Christians were afraid to worship openly for fear of discrimination.

Dissidents alleged that the Government restricted the import of printed religious matter; only Buddhist religious texts were allowed to enter the country.

Certain 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 for Government services were asked their religion before the services were rendered.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Ethnic Nepalese in the country were subject to discrimination by the authorities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when many were driven from their homes and forcibly expelled from the country. The root causes of this official discrimination and the expulsions were cultural, economic, and political; however, to the degree that their Hinduism identified them as members of the ethnic Nepalese minority, religion may have been a secondary factor. The Government contended that many of those expelled in 1991 were illegal immigrants who had no right to citizenship or residency in the country and that others had "voluntarily emigrated." Some 100,000 ethnic Nepalese continued to live in refugee camps in eastern Nepal and were seeking to return to their homes in Bhutan. An estimated 15,000 more resided outside of the camps in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal.

On June 18, the Government announced the results of the categorization of refugees of the first verified camp and its willingness to begin repatriating "genuine Bhutanese" citizens. The first category, "bonafide Bhutanese," who can prove they were forcefully evicted, comprised 2.4 percent of the total and can immediately return to Bhutan with full rights as citizens. The second category, "voluntary emigrants," comprised 70.5 percent and will be allowed to return but must apply for citizenship, a process which could take up to two years. The third category, "non-nationals," comprised 24.2 percent and will not be allowed to return to the country. Many are not Bhutanese, but some are former residents of Bhutan not eligible for citizenship under the law. The fourth category, "criminals," reportedly will be allowed to return if they agree to face criminal charges in the Bhutanese judicial system.

The Government continued a program of resettling Buddhist citizens from other parts of the country on land in the south vacated by the expelled ethnic Nepalese now living in refugee camps in Nepal. Human rights groups maintained that this action prejudices the eventual negotiated return of the refugees to the country. The Government maintained that this was not its first resettlement program and that citizens who are ethnic Nepalese from the south sometimes were resettled on land in other parts of the country.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

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.

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. That preoccupation on the part of the Government and many Buddhists still was present during the period covered by this report. It was reflected in official and societal efforts to impose the dress and cultural norms of the Ngalop ethnic group 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. Societal prejudices against this group continue as has the Government's policy on forced retirement of refugee family members in government service and the resettlement of Buddhists on land vacated by expelled ethnic Hindu Nepalese in the south.

Some of the country's few Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese living in the south, claimed that they are subject to harassment and discrimination by the Government, local authorities, and non-Christian citizens. Some NGOs reported increased intimidation by the Government of persons who do not look like Bhutanese 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 border crossings and United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) camps that were reportedly based in the southern part of the country.

There have been some attempts to promote interfaith understanding. There were regular exchanges between monks of the two schools of Buddhism represented in the country. The King's example of making Hindu festivals official holidays and observing them also had a positive impact on citizens' attitudes.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

There are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Bhutan. Informal contacts between the two governments, ranging from the level of cabinet secretary to that of embassy officer, frequently took place. During these exchanges, governmental discrimination against the ethnic Nepalese minority has been discussed. The U.S. Ambassador to India discussed the refugee issue with the King and other senior members of the Government when he visited the country in April.

In December 2002, an embassy officer and Senate staff delegation discussed religious freedom in the context of the refugee issue and the new Constitution in meetings with Bhutanese officials. The U.S. Government has also worked to promote religious freedom and other democratic values by sponsoring several Bhutanese citizens to the United States on International Visitors Programs, which were structured to convey the importance of democratic and religious freedoms.

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