Sonam Choden / Thimphu
Three years ago, an elderly woman, a Christian convert, was buried right in front of her house in Gelephu triggering a backlash from the community.
Very soon, reportedly, a dungkhag kasho was issued saying that that such burials should not happen. However, the Lekithang tshogpa said she saw burials last year happening right next to people’s houses. “The Christians still continue with the burials and we are not aware of the Dungkhag restricting such things,” she said.
A resident was of the opinion that poor people are changing their faiths because Hinduism and Buddhism are “expensive” religions. “It takes a lot of money to conduct rituals at a cremation. Sometimes the lams and chhops would not come to a funeral of a poor person as they have nothing to offer,” he said.
According to the Director General of Department of Culture, Dorjee Tshering, Christians cannot have proper graveyards as they are not registered legally as a religion even though they maybe Bhutanese citizens.
The graveyard issue has been a huge cause of conflict for Christians and those whose houses are in the vicinity of graveyards.
The Religious Organization Commission Act of 2007 explicitly mentions that only Buddhism and Hinduism is registered or can be registered as official religions. It also clearly mentions that even if any other religion submits a draft or an original document it cannot be registered.
Some prominent Christian leaders in the country claimed to have come forward to register with the government along with a draft application a year ago but since the Christian population was very minimal compared to Hindus and Buddhists, the government, they said, asked them not to register at the time.
Meanwhile, Dorjee Tshering mentioned that the Christians submitted draft documents which were incomplete.
“The documents should have all the details like the description of an article of the association indicating who the president or the head is and the names of the members along with their citizenship ID cards,” he said adding that Christians or any religious group for that matter cannot submit an incomplete draft.
“The original documents should be submitted as it has to be screened before we submit to the Religious Organization Commission for approval,” said the Director General.
“Even if the proposal is put up to the Religious Commission, it’s not in the hands of the registration board to immediately register it because the government Act on other religions is explicit.”
The Director General also mentioned that even the draft document should be original as the Act can be easily downloaded and is accessible to everyone.
Pastor Rupak Tamang, a senior Christian leader, said that even though Christianity cannot be registered as a religion as of now, the government is still being informed about activities carried out by Christians.
“The purpose of the Act is to promote harmony among all religions, and have real public accountability for resources generated through faith and devotees . Citizens have the right to follow any religion they want in a democratic country. In fact the practice of any religion is not illegal as the Constitution clearly mentions that people are free to practice any religion they want,” he said.
During the monthly meet the press of July 2, 2010, the Prime Minister also mentioned that if people choose to bury secretly, they have the right to do so in a democracy, adding that when it comes to burial, whether Muslims or Christians, no coercion could be exercised.
The the graveyard issue came to the limelight after Christians buried their dead in Toebesa Gewog in Punakha, near Lamperi, about five km from Dochula. Toebesa residents have been demanding the authorities to clear the graveyard as it lies at their drinking water source and the place is considered sacred.
Though the matter was put up to the dzongkhag administration and Jigme Dorji National Park a year ago, there has been no action from both the sides.
“Till now the dead bodies were buried wherever the Christians wanted, but since there has been complaints, the forestry division stopped it. So the bodies are either taken to border areas or to India for burial,” clarified Pastor Rupak Tamang.
“The government did give a thought about identifying areas to consider as graveyards but somehow our country simply does not have places to spare as most of our areas are covered with vegetation or it’s either sacred; having a separate graveyard is simply not feasible,” said Dorjee Tshering.
The Director General said that when the Christians put up the draft application to the government, they applied for legal registration so that one person or a team can be in charge of the whole Christian community in the country.
Meanwhile, Christian leaders said though they needed a proper graveyard they cannot ask it from the government since they are not registered.
However, Christians The Bhutanese talked to, said that it is fine to practice the faith but not right to force people to convert or lure them into the faith through offering of money and other benefits.