Bhutan’s Anti-Conversion Law

In Bhutan, a new law may penalize Christians who proselytize and try to convert you:

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” –- vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

… the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

They don’t specifically call out Christianity in the law, but that’s the underlying subtext. It’s not like Buddhists are knocking on your door.

But since attempting to convert other people is a requirement of their faith, some Christians are rightly worried that this is really just a law to crack down on their freedom of religion. Even helping the poor may be seen as an underhanded way to spread the faith.

What qualifies as proselytizing, anyway?

Bhutan: *sneeze*
Christian: Bless you.
Bhutan: YOU’RE GOING TO JAIL!

For what it’s worth, Christians make up under 1% of the population in Bhutan and don’t have any churches in the country — this proposed law would just be another in a long line of rulings to hamper the practice of Christianity.

Here’s the kicker:

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

One government official tried to explain how this anti-conversion law would be justified given the whole “freedom of religion” thing:

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

You don’t. No one does. But everyone has a right to practice whatever faith they want, and the Christian demands are relatively harmless.

This is ridiculous and completely hypocritical. I’m an atheist who finds Christian proselytizing annoying as hell. But I defend their right to annoy the crap out of me. Here’s hoping all of you do, too.

(Thanks to Edward for the link)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://namelesscynic.blogspot.com Nameless Cynic

    Well, you know, it IS their country, after all. They get to make their own rules and everything.

    And maybe they’re trying to avoid things like this.

  • http://brielle.sosdg.org Brielle

    I support free speech and their right to talk about their religion, but only if they are willing to extend me the same – and understand that I reserve the right to belittle and heckle them if they ignore my warning to stay away.

    Getting tired of hearing about the ‘loving hand of god’.

  • Jim

    Help me! I’m being persecuted!

  • Richard

    They’re not criminalizing the proseltyzing or the religion itself, but the idea of using “coercion or other forms of inducement” to get people to recognize some philosophy.

    The law seems to be prohibiting moral blackmail which seems extremely reasonable considering how religion often tries to convert the most unfortunate. Providing aid to those unfortunate because your religion tells you to help those in need is one thing, but then to use that as leverage to get them to convert is shameful.

    This law would in no way prohibit the advertisement of any religious philosophy unless you’re luring them with a cookie in one hand, only to slap them with a holy text in the other.

  • Stephen P

    One can hardly object to a prohibition on coercion. “Inducement” is vague and thus worrying – but what does the original text actually say? This is the Christian Post remember, so how accurate is their translation?

    And one should certainly also read the section about Sikkim in the article: Bhutanese concerns suddenly become a lot more understandable.

  • Barry

    Very interesting issues here. Yes, it’s their country, but I think our country recognizes freedom of religion as a universal right, not just our choice. If so, we have a right to cajole and jaw-bone them (not in the Biblical sense, natch) into recognizing that right. And I agree with you, Hemant, that no one should be jailed for trying to use persuasion in the area of religion. But I might also support laws against threatening people with Hell –can’t you? That could be interpreted as coercion.

  • Aaron

    I just glanced at their penal code and it seems like it would be considered harassment. However, they have a few things in there that would disturb me in their vagueness.
    Like section 458. Civil Unrest is defined by committing an act that is prejudicial to harmony between nationalities, religions, etc…
    It’s a felony.

    http://www.judiciary.gov.bt/html/act/PENAL%20CODE.pdf

  • Matt

    I agree that Christians should be able to proselytize, as a matter of freedom of speech and religion, and that the state should be non-religious in allowing those freedoms. But, I don’t completely see why Christians really care about being persecuted for it. Their ultimate reward is in the afterlife, and being persecuted for their beliefs helps them toward that goal. Practically speaking, religions only give lip service to the freedom of speech and religion, anyway, so I’ve always thought it hypocritical that each religion demand those rights for themselves while denying it for others.

  • Neon Genesis

    What if this law is also used against atheists who try to argue religious people out of their religion?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    They should just outlaw Hell and any kind of Judgment day. That will leave the Christian proselytizers without anything religious to talk about and they can just concentrate on providing humanitarian aid to the poor. I do agree, though, that freedom of speech is an important right and laws should not be made to stifle it.

  • http://secularshawshank.wordpress.com Andy

    I agree with Aaron about the vagueness (thanks for the link).

    1.) It would be one hell of a tough law to enforce. That, alone, could be an argument against it.

    2.) It seems like this law might be part of an effort to keep-in-check a small and probably hated minority in Bhutan: that minority happens to be Christians. So the motives behind the law may be less-than-noble.

    3.) A new law, one that deals specifically with proselytizing, probably isn’t necessary. Proselytizing is a form a speech and a form of expression. When speech and/or expression—of any kind—crosses the line and becomes coercion, harassment, or duress, then it is actionable under the laws that restrict general coercion, harassment, and duress. I don’t want the law to discourage proselytizing any more than I want the law to restrict street performers or pan-handling. But when those activities, or any activity, becomes over-the-top and abusive in a way that encroaches upon the rights of others, the law should pounce. Since there’s already a legal framework for that, I’m not seeing the immediate need for another law. Of course, I’m probably wrong, for I know nothing of Bhutan or what goes on there.

  • Richard Wade

    I wonder how a bus ad or a billboard in Bhutan would be received if it said in Dzongkha:

    Don’t believe in any religion? You’re not alone.

  • Erp

    Given that Bhutan is very strict about outside influences of any sort, I suspect all billboards are banned as not being part of the culture. Television was only made available (legally) in 1999.

  • http://secularshawshank.wordpress.com Andy

    Television was only made available (legally) in 1999.

    Oh man. They are fascists!

  • abadidea

    Andy: not fascists so much supremely afraid of having their culture devalued by westerners as has certainly happened in several other Asian countries. The king of Bhutan is the youngest monarch in the world, very fair and considerate judging by everything I’ve heard of him. I’m sure Bhutan has just as many backwards practices as anywhere else in the world, but they are trying to avoid having someone else’s backwards practices sow discord in their very small community.

  • Scootah

    proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement”

    I’m not sure how ‘Bless You’ would even hypothetically be coercive on inducing. I don’t even see how door knocking and asking if you’ve found jesus would be coercive or inducing. It seems like this would be relatively limited to ‘CONVERT OR GO TO HELL’ or ‘Sure you can have soup, if you and your children convert to christianity’ – neither of which I really object to being banned.

  • Gwenny

    Personally, I think maybe it’s none of our business. Besides, don’t the Christians often argue about how their religious freedom is impacted if they are force to tolerate gays/atheists/name your evil group? They should respect that this is NOT a Christian country and either keep silence or more. There are plenty places in the world where Christians can live freely. I bet they could even get help from the government to leave.

  • Brian Macker

    Is promising an afterlife in heaven an “inducement” under this law.

    I always though proselytizing was already covered under laws against fraud but never actually enforced because of the religious exception.

  • Dan W

    While I hate it when Christians proselytize me, I’m worried about Bhutan’s new law too. It could easily be misused. Although, it seems worded in a manner meaning that people can’t be coerced (and the like) into becoming Christians there. Then again, the typical coercive type of prosetylizing message Christians use is the “convert or go to hell” variety, which really doesn’t work very well, particularly if the person they are trying to convert doesn’t believe in hell.

    Anyway, I’m rambling. TL;DR version: I have mixed feelings about this- it could have good or bad results. I’ll wait and see what effect this has.

  • Erp

    People might find the State Department report of interest

    http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/sca/136086.htm

    The law does not address forced exile, but the government forced the majority of its Nepali-speaking population to leave the country in the early 1990s, following a series of steps taken during the 1970s and 1980s to deprive the Nepali-speaking population of their citizenship. The 2007 census indicated there were 108,000 persons living in refugee camps in Nepal administered by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

    (Bhutan’s population is a bit under 700,000).

  • Ed

    The State Dept. also published a report on religious freedom which you can read here.

    Hemant, thanks for posting my story suggestion.

    From a western country where these type of laws are not a problem, my first response on reading

    The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” –- vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

    was to think it telling that charity seemed so linked to proselytizing. Why not just ixnay on the odgay talk and concentrate on providing aid to the poor?

    After reading a tad more on Bhutan (though info is hard to find) the xtian’s concerns seem more well founded. If I lived in a country that relocated/deported 100k out of it’s 700k population, and routinely refuses the right to build churches, I would be concerned too.

    I think Hemant’s evaluation is solid, though I do still wonder if charity (with no talk of God) would really cause someone to be arrested.

  • http://www.edwardlarson.com Ed

    Related news in Bhutan: grave diggers steal Christian’s bones (who are permitted no graveyards in Bhutan) for Buddhist rituals. Link

  • http://www.quietatheist.com Slugsie

    the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another

    A strict reading of that suggests that deconversions are completely fine. So, should we all visit visit Bhutan with hair dryers in hand??? :)

  • AnonyMouse

    I am disgusted by some of the things I’ve read in the comments section. And this part of Hemant’s post is suspect as well.

    “For what it’s worth, Christians make up under 1% of the population in Bhutan and don’t have any churches in the country — this proposed law would just be another in a long line of rulings to hamper the practice of Christianity.”

    I’m not sure what “for what it’s worth” means. I can only hope you’re not trying to say that since there aren’t many Christians and they are already persecuted in their home country, this law is somehow less.

    The fact is that Christians in this country are a minority and their government is apparently working to oppress them. (The fact that there are so few Christians in this country lends great weight to their concerns.) That is intolerable in any country, against any group. It doesn’t matter if other Christians – or even these Christians – have said some hateful things against you. Their rights are at stake. That is the only thing that matters.

    This law is about as innocent as the law in Arizona that would allow policemen to demand legal papers from anyone whom they “reasonably believed” may be an illegal immigrant.

    For the record: The rest of Hemant’s post is fine. I’m just on a kick today. And I completely oppose any law that would prohibit the freedom of speech, even if it’s obnoxious. (Except on private land.)

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    @AnonyMouse — I think I included that paragraph to just provide a bit more context. Like I said in the post, I’m defending the Christians here.