Bhutan, The Catholic Church in

views updated


The Kingdom of Bhutan is located in the Himalayas, and is bordered on the north and northwest by Tibet and on the south, southwest, and east by India. A rugged, mountainous country, Bhutan has control of several important passes through the Himalayan mountain range. The region, which is known for violent storms and landslides during its rainy season, is predominately forested, and timber is one of Bhutan's primary industries.

Initially ruled by regional spiritual governors, Bhutan fell under Chinese domination in the late 18th century. In 1774 it signed a treaty with the British East India Company, which transferred external control of the region to Great Britain a century later. A British protectorate from 1910 until India was granted independence in August 1949, Bhutan successfully defeated claims against its territory by communist China in the 1950s. A hereditary monarchy, established in Bhutan in 1907, continued to successfully weather the tiny country's political changes. By 2000 much of Bhutan's trade was with India, which, due to its political relationship with its northern neighbor, also provided the underdeveloped nation with humanitarian aid.

Most Bhutanese, of Mongolian descent, practice Lamaist buddhism, and numerous Buddhist monasteries exist.

Christianity first made its appearance in Bhutan when two Jesuit missionaries on a journey from Bengal across the Himalayas to Tibet entered the country in 1626. Detained by the nation's religious leader, the Dharma-Raja, at Paro for several weeks, they studied Tibetan with a Tsaparang lama. No other Catholic missionaries were recorded as having succeeded them, with the consequence that Catholicism never gained a following.

Over three centuries later, the Catholic presence reappeared in Bhutan, when the Bhutanese government, on the recommendation of Catholic educators in Darjeeling, India, invited Father William Mackey and a fellow Canadian Jesuit into the country in 1963 to establish a primary education system. Mackey remained until his death in 1995. A small group of Salesian missionaries were similarly welcomed two years later, but were expelled by the government in early 1982 on charges of proselytism. Buddhism remained the state religion; while freedom of individual worship was tolerated, missionary activities were prohibited by the government.

Initially part of the Diocese of Tezpur in India, care of Bhutanese Catholics was transferred to the Diocese of Darjeeling on Jan. 21, 1975. The Darjeeling Diocese ordained the first native Bhutanese priest in 1995; although the country had as yet no parishes, ten resident sisters administered to Bhutan's approximately 500 Catholic faithful by 2000. While the country modernized during the 20th century, abolishing the caste system, granting certain rights to women, and eliminating slavery, political parties remained illegal and the government continued to prohibit public dialogue in matters of religion. Despite efforts to preserve its traditional way of life, Bhutan exhibited the first sparks of social unrest in the 1990s as its Nepalese minority demanded political recognition. Such events were seen as possible signals of an increasing tolerance foror an increasing repression of religious diversity in the years to come.

Bibliography: c. a. bell, Tibet, Past and Present. c. wessels, Early Jesuit Travellers in Central Asia, 16031721 (The Hague 1924).

[e. r. hambye/eds.]