NEWS | Kaley Payne
Thursday 3 September 2015
While debate over a new constitution for Nepal is sparking violent protests in the country, Christians fear persecution of minorities will only get worse with the potential changes.
Nepal’s long transition to democracy began with the abolition of its Hindu monarchy in 2008, following civil war led by Maoist guerrillas. The country’s first democratic elections occurred soon after and a new constitution, cementing a secular democracy, has been expected ever since.
Open Doors International, an organisation seeking to protect Christians in persecuted areas, estimates that Christians comprise between 1.5 and 3 per cent of the Nepalese population. Over 80 per cent of Nepal is Hindu.
According to World Watch Monitor (WWM), Nepali Christians fear that proposed amendments to Nepal’s new constitution could eventually render all Christian activity illegal.
“Attempting to convert someone to another religion is already prohibited in Nepal,” reports WWM. “But the proposed amendments would mean that anything perceived as ‘evangelistic’ could be punishable by law.”
Eternity spoke with DP Panday, a Nepalese Christian from Pokhara heavily involved in Christian ministry who has been keeping a close eye on the new constitution’s development. Article 31 of the proposed document seeks to enshrine religious freedom as a fundamental right. However, clause 3 of the article bans proselytising or conversion by clerics.
“Article 31 grants freedom of religion to a person – freedom to observe, practice and preserve the religion,” said Panday. “Article 31.3 indirectly bans Christians from sharing the faith with other people.”
Article 31(3) of the proposed new constitution states that “any act to convert another person from one religion to another, or any act or behaviour to undermine or jeopardise the religion of another will be punishable by law.”
The Catholic Church is one religious group among many raising concerns about what the new constitution will mean for religious freedom. Fr Silas Bogati, Nepal’s Vicar General, said clause 3 “practically takes away the freedom brought in by clause 1,” and could lead to “wild allegations of conversion”.
“Without freedom to speak about one’s faith, what is the meaning of religious freedom,” said Lokmani Dhakal, one of the four Christians in Nepal’s 601-member Constituent Assembly, as reported by Vatican Radio in July.
Panday says the possibility of punishment for sharing one’s faith will be “very hard for Christians,” at a time and in a place that is already very hard on religious minorities.
The majority Hindu population is feeling insecure about the new political reality, says Panday. A large protest in Kathmandu recently called for the new constitution to recognise Nepal as a Hindu state, a status the country lost after the civil war. Panday says that in this climate, religious minorities, and particularly Christians, are the target of renewed persecution.
“This is [a] very non-favourable situation for the Christianity minority,” Panday told Eternity. “Hindus feel Christians are religious enemies – secularism in the constitution was first lobbied [for] by some progressive groups supported by Western countries, who are identified as Christian nations.
“I have never seen such bombardment of ugly comments even from highly political figures and also religious figures, accusing Christians and western nations [of] destroying Hindu traditions, cultures and social harmony.”
Panday says that, in some ways, he can understand why Hindus would think that the new secularised Nepal favours Christians. He believes the residual feeling of threat to Hinduism in Nepal is one reason why clause 3, which bans conversion, is part of the new constitution.
“In my personal opinion, Christians had more freedom to share the gospel when the previous law was in place because Hindus were secure because of the title and status of the ‘Hindu Nation’ [of Nepal]. At that time only forceful conversions were banned, which wasn’t an issue for Christians because they weren’t forcing anyone.”
The new Nepali constitution has been delayed for years, with fierce political division over many aspects of the important document. The country’s recent, devastating earthquakes renewed calls for the constitution to be finalised, in an effort to provide some stability to the country.
While debate rages and violence increases, Panday says ministry in Nepal will have to change.
“I think the [new constitution] will change the way we can share the gospel in mass meetings and public areas. Churches will have to learn to share the gospel in new and creative ways, not through traditional ways like gospel tracts or door-to-door witnessing.
“But Christians can still shine a light in the dark community and share their faith at a personal level through building relationships and friendships with people,” says Panday, hopefully. “Now is the time for the Nepali church to equip members with training and resources that help them to grow spiritually so that they can become salt and light, and effective witnesses to their neighbours.”