By BosNewsLife Asia Service
THIMPHU, BHUTAN (BosNewsLife)-- Minority Christians in Bhutan were in a state of shock Tuesday, September 16, after a court sentenced two pastors to long prison terms for receiving funds for their activities, though one church leader was "temporarily" freed, friends said.
Pastor Tandin Wangyal, 30, was told he could briefly leave prison after paying a fine that effectively took one year off his prison term, according to trial observers.
Wangyal was earlier told he would have to serve nearly four years in prison for committing "a felony" for soliciting funds from the public for personal gain.
Fellow Pastor Mon Thapa, 56, received a shorter sentence of 2 years and 4 months, said the news agency
of Open Doors, an advocacy group supporting persecuted Christians.
Alternatively, he could pay a fine of 98,800 Ngultrum (US$1,630) instead of time in prison, a huge amount in this impoverished heavily Bhuddist kingdom, nestling in the Himalayas between its powerful neighbours, India and China.
"I am already handed to the police now for detention," said Wangyal in published remarks. "I may
not be able to communicate after this [message]."
Wangyal has 10 days to submit his appeal, but local Christians have said that chances are slim. "This sad development has really shaken everyone. My mother and the other women of our church will visit Tandin’s [Wangyal] family," a Christian said, requesting anonymity.
The men were detained March 5 while they carrying a sick child to a clinic in a village where they organized a three-day seminar for 30 Christians from neighboring towns.
They were reportedly initially detained for organizing a religious event without prior approval and
showing a film without certificate of approval from media authorities.
Additionally the men were also accused of the more serious charge of collecting ‘illegal funds.’
In written defense statements the pastors denied wrongdoing.
Christians have linked the charges to Bhutan’s perceived crackdown on Christianity and other non-Buddhist religions.
Church buildings are illegal, Christians face difficulties in receiving free education. "Proselytism", the word used for evangelism, and incitement to convert are illegal, Christians said. Bhutanese who convert to Christianity can lose their citizenship.
Charges of proselytism were dropped when, after intense questioning of the 30 Christians who took
part in the three-day meeting, police said they found no proof that the two men had forced believers
to convert to Christianity.
Bhutan ranks number 31 in Open Doors’ World Watch List, an annual ranking of 50 countries where it claims life as a Christian is most difficult.
"Christians endure threats and pressures from village heads and clerics to return to Buddhism. They can pray and worship privately in their homes, but they struggle to meet in congregations and to obtain official permission to do so," Open Doors said
Bhutan’s Home Minister Damcho Dorji reportedly denied wrongdoing, telling the Business Bhutan newspaper that religion played "no part" in the pastors’ arrest.
"They had not obtained permission from local authorities," Dorji was quoted as saying.
"This is a crime under the penal code… If you have violated this, it does not matter whether you are Buddhist, Hindu or Christian."