Bhutan court hands jail sentences to pastors for unauthorized missionary work

(Photo: REUTERS / Adrees Latif)Buddhist monks pray in front of a large Thongdrel at the Tashichho Dzong in Bhutan's capital Thimphu October 15, 2011.

A Bhutan court has handed out prison sentences, one suspended, to two pastors after finding them guilty of doing missionary work without government permission.

The convicted pastors were identified as the Rev. Tandin Wangyal and the Rev. B Thap.

The court handed its verdict on September 10, according to a report from Eglise d'Asie carried by

Wangyal, 30, was sentenced to four years in prison after prosecutors accused him of receiving financial assistance from "Christian organizations abroad" worth US$11,000.

Prosecutors said the funds he gathered were to be used for "Christian proselytizing."

Three-quarters of Bhutan's population practice Buddhism.

B Thap, 56, was sentenced to two years and four months in prison for assisting Wangyal in arranging meetings "without authorization" from the government.

But B Thap's sentence was suspended and he was released on bail.

The Bhutan government, through its interior minister, defended the convictions, pointing out that the pastors violated the country's penal laws.

The pastors were arrested in March after they brought a sick child to a hospital. They were about to hold a three-day seminar in Khapdani for local Christians there.

Police seized computers, cell phones and other belongings of the pastors at the time of their arrest.

Supporters of the clergymen claimed that the prosecutors repeatedly changed the indictments of the preachers, saying that the government could not put together a decent case against them.

Both preachers continued to deny any wrongdoing with regard to the charges leveled against them. They were set to appeal their convictions within 10 days.

The government had relaxed its restrictions on Christian worship, allowing a certain degree of religious freedom.

Bhutan's new constitution adopted in 2008 formally recognizes religious freedom for all Bhutanese, so long as they report it to the appropriate authorities.

In recent years, some Hindu temples have been built. However, Christians cannot build churches or schools, publish Bibles or celebrate Mass in public.

Bhutan is a landlocked  South Asian located at the eastern end of the Himalayas. It is bordered to the north by China and to the south, east and west by India. 

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