THIMPU, Bhutan -- CBN News recently visited Bhutan, located in South Asia, for a rare, inside look at the body of Christ there.
The nation is a tiny Buddhist kingdom of less than a million people nestled in the midst of the Himalayas--an isolated country where large numbers of foreigners and outside influences have been kept out. But some aspects of Western culture are now slowly creeping in.
Fewer people on the streets are wearing traditional Bhutanese clothing and it seems just about everyone has a cell phone.
It's a season of change.
Freedom of Religion for Buddists
A new young king officially ascended to the throne in November 2008. He's following initial steps taken by his father to transition the nation to democracy. Also in 2008, the nation's first parliamentary elections were held and a new constitution was adopted. While it guarantees freedom of religion in practice, the attitude of the government and people is if you are Bhutanese, you are Buddhist.
But there is a small, underground Christian community in Bhutan.
One church CBN News visited --high up in the Himalayas-- is attended mostly by immigrant Nepalese. Some of its members walk for several hours just to attend Sunday morning services. But a growing number of Bhutanese are starting to follow Christ.
Because they are scattered throughout the country meeting in house churches, no one knows for certain how many ethnically Bhutanese Christians there are in this Buddhist nation. Some of them spoke with CBN News about their faith, but few wanted to share their stories on camera.
Church Growing Since Early 1970s
One church leader agreed to share with us only if we protected his identity. We referred to him as Pastor George. He says the Bhutanese church started growing in the early 1970s.
"The growth has been quite small but nonetheless it is still growing," he said. "It's almost pioneering in some sort of ways, like the churches probably at the days of Pentecost."
There are no properly theologically trained pastors or those in leadership as well. It's all led by lay people. It's all in homes, home settings, groups very small, loosely knit."
They meet in homes because construction of non-Buddhist religious buildings is restricted by the government. The import of Christian materials is not allowed and Christian missionaries are prohibited from entering the country.
Christians Cannot Share Their Faith in Public
The government denies Christians the right to share their faith in public.
"I think you can be fined and at the worst you could go to jail as well," Pastor George explained.
The nation's newspapers are now recognizing that a Christian community exists in Bhutan. Often Christians are depicted negatively.
One government newspaper, The Kuensel, talks about Bhutanese joining Christianity for economic reasons" so they" don't have to spend money for various rituals."
The paper told the story of a "76-year old who was beaten for refusing to convert" to Christianity. It also reported that Christian groups in one village were "causing unease."
Recently The Bhutan Times denounced what it called, "vague evangelist websites that claim persecution of Christians in Bhutan." It said "the government is not in the persecution business."
Christian Threatened with Death
Another Christian CBN News interviewed said back in the year 2000 an angry government official threatened to kill him if he did not renounce Christianity and return to Buddhism.
"He said you come back otherwise who knows you may be expelled out of the country," explained the Christian. "He also said for the sake of country, I will kill you also and I don't think the government will object because to kill you is to save the people from going to Christianity."
But he stood firm in his faith.
"I said no, I will not give up. I will not give up because He is the only true God. I knew that Jesus saves me."
Today, nearly a decade later, government officials are making fewer threats against Christians.
"I think there's a notion that it should get better and better with the introduction of the new constitution but that says very little in terms of actual practice, said Pastor George." You can be falsely charged by those opposed to Christianity and you can be made to suffer for it."
Christians Meet in Secret
Still the Christians press on, mostly in secret. CBN News was invited to join several pastors as they attended a recent training seminar. Bhutanese Christian leaders say more sound, biblical teaching and leadership training is needed.They also ask that Christians around the world pray for them.
"Pray that the church will be prepared to meet all its challenges," Pastor George said. "In as much as we have assurance of love and prayers from the West, ultimately it's the Christians here that will have to stand on their own under the Lord's banner."
And He promises He will never leave them nor forsake them.
*Originally aired June 29, 2009