NEPAL: CHRISTIANS INCREASINGLY VULNERABLE IN SECULAR STATE


As law and order breaks down, Christians come under attack.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, July 30

(Compass Direct News) – Three years after a pro-democracy movement led to the proclamation of Nepal as a secular state, some Christians say they are in greater peril than ever.

They are now being targeted by militant Hindu organizations that blame the church for the abolition of Hinduism as the state religion and the end of monarchy. A little-known, shadowy organization that claimed to be building an army of suicide bombers has achieved notoriety with two brutal attacks on Catholics in two years.

Since May, when the Nepal Defense Army (NDA) – which claims to have links with militant Hindu organizations across the border in India – struck one of Kathmandu valley’s oldest and biggest churches, the group has threatened to drive all Christians from the country. And now a group claiming to be the parent organization of the NDA has warned that on Aug. 10 it will start a “Save the Hindu nation” movement.

Police say Ram Prasad Mainali, the elusive NDA chief, hired a local woman to plant a bomb at the Assumption Church on May 23 during mass. Two women and a schoolgirl were killed in the attack. The NDA also claimed responsibility for killing a Catholic priest, John Prakash Moyalan, in southern Nepal last year.

Though police have issued an alert for his arrest, Mainali continues to evade capture, and it is murmured that he has political connections. Undeterred by the hunt, he continues to threaten the Christian community.

Last month, the Rev. Pius Perumana, a senior Catholic priest, received a phone call.

“The caller said he was in charge of the NDA in Kathmandu valley,” said Perumana of Ishalaya Catholic Church, located in Godavari on the southern rim of the capital. “However, I recognized the voice. It was Ram Prasad Mainali himself.”

Godavari is an important Catholic hub that includes a Catholic pastoral center, a shelter for destitute, HIV-infected women and homeless children, a day care center and a small clinic.

Perumana said he has received at least five threatening calls from the Hindu supremist ordering him to close all Christian organizations and leave Nepal, he said. The NDA leader has also been calling Protestant pastors, demanding money. In districts outside Kathmandu, where security is weak, some pastors are said to have paid up out of fear.

Mainali’s success has spawned at least one copycat extortion attempt.

“At least one pastor in Kathmandu has received an extortion letter,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman of the Assumption Church. “The writer claimed to be the vice-president of a Hindu group, the National Defence Party (NDP), calling it the mother organization of which Mainali’s NDA was the military arm. The pastor was asked to pay 7.5 million Nepalese rupees [US$98,190].”

The letter warned that starting on Aug. 10, the underground organization will start a “Save the Hindu nation” movement.

No Christian Corpses

Until three years ago, Nepal used to be the only Hindu kingdom in the world where Christians faced discrimination by the state, ostracization by society and imprisonment if found guilty of preaching Christ.

Things officially changed in 2006 after a pro-democracy movement led to the ouster of the army-backed regime of Hindu King Gyanendra, and Parliament proclaimed the Himalayan kingdom a secular, federal state.

But three years later, nothing has changed in reality, said the Rev. Nayaran Sharma, bishop of the Protestant Believers’ Church.

“We bought a plot of land in a forest in Gorkha district in western Nepal so that we could have an official graveyard,” Sharma told Compass. “But when the locals heard of it, they made us return the land, saying they did not want corpses in their midst as they would attract evil.”

Even three years after Nepal became secular, Christians have to be buried clandestinely on private property with the danger of graves being dug up, he said.

“Churches have not yet been registered by the government, and so we don’t get state assistance like the Hindu temples and Muslim mosques do,” Sharma said. “Temples are provided free land, electricity and water; the madrassas – the Muslim schools – receive state funding, and the government subsidizes the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.”

Christians make up about 2.5 percent of Nepal’s 25 million population. Nearly 75 percent of the population in Nepal is Hindu.

Christians are said to be both angered and disheartened by the new, 601-member constituent assembly mandated to draft a new constitution by May 2010.

“There’s not one Christian among the 601, though the government had the power to nominate members from unrepresented communities,” Sharma said. “Though Christianity has been in Nepal for almost 350 years, Christians are still like orphans. There is no one to speak for us, and we are discriminated against beyond imagination.”

Soft Targets

Political instability and the subsequent lawlessness and impunity leave Christians vulnerable to violence, as Sanjay Ekka, a Catholic priest from India’s impoverished Jharkhand state, learned on Monday (July 27).

Ekka came to Nepal in 2000 to teach at St. Xavier’s School, a Jesuit-run school in eastern Jhapa district. Five years ago, he was brought to the capital city of Kathmandu to run the Loyola Students’ Home, a hostel for boys from the Tamang community of Nepal, who, like Ekka’s own tribe, the Oraons, are among the poorest, least educated and most oppressed groups in Nepal.

Despite the similarities of the two tribes, the 40-year-old Ekka was subjected to a savage attack on Monday (July 27) by an expelled student that left his left arm severely slashed and deep gashes on his hip.

“It’s another sign of the growing lawlessness in the country,” says the Rev. Lawrence Maniyar, former principal of St. Xavier’s School in Kathmandu valley, which was founded in 1951. “With crimes soaring, Christians are being targeted as they are seen as soft targets.”

Another factor endangering Christians in Nepal is the tension in the nascent republic’s relations with its southern neighbor and largest trading partner, India. As the smaller neighbour, Nepal has lived in fear of being annexed since 1975, when the kingdom of Sikkim decided to abrogate monarchy and become part of India after a controversial referendum.

Tensions worsened in 1989, when India imposed a virtual blockade of Nepal, hitting the fragile economy of the land-locked kingdom. A substantial number of Christian priests in Nepal are from India.

“The heads of three Catholic organizations have been asked to leave Nepal,” said Bishop Anthony Sharma. They are the Rev. Boniface Tigga, principal of St. Xavier’s School in Kathmandu valley, the principal of St. Mary’s Higher Secondary School, identified only as Sister Nancy, and Sister Teresa Mandassery, who heads the Navjyoti Day Care Center for the mentally challenged in Kathmandu. All three are from India.

“Now the animosity is out in the open,” said Maniyar of St Xavier’s in Kathmandu valley. “There has been growing union trouble in St. Xavier’s School. While we were holding talks with the union representatives, they told us to our face, ‘You priests from Kerala [in southern India] think you can run the school the way you want.”

Maniyar said it is useless trying to explain reality to such people.

“We are in Nepal not because we are Indians,” he says. “We are here because we are Jesuits. It is an international organization with an administrative structure of its own, and we have to follow our superiors and go where ever they want us to.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

NEPAL: TERRORISTS TARGET INDIAN PRIESTS


Following murder of Fr. Moyalan, Christian leaders from India seeking protection.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, August 13 (Compass Direct News) – Father John Prakash Moyalan, the 62-year-old Catholic priest killed on July 1 by an underground militant Hindu organization in Nepal, might have been alive today – had he not been an Indian, according to the Himalayan republic’s Christian community.

With the law-and-order situation in the new republic plummeting since elections in April and relations with southern neighbor India becoming increasingly acrimonious, Christian leaders here said Indian Catholics in Nepal are facing a greater threat from Hindu extremists. The extremists blame New Delhi for the May 28 ouster of Nepal’s Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and the transformation of the world’s only Hindu kingdom into a secular state.

Father John Vianney, head of the Pastoral Animation Centre (PAC) in Lalitpur (located on the south side of the Bagmati River that separates it from Kathmandu), said PAC received five to six calls after the gunning down of Fr. Moyalan in Sirsiya town in south Nepal, the most volatile region in the country since the abolition of the monarchy.

“Fr. Prakash’s attackers took away his cellular phone,” Fr. Vianney told Compass. “Then they began calling the numbers stored in it, demanding money.”

Fr. Vianney himself took one of those calls.

“Are you a Nepali or Indian?” the caller asked the priest, who is from India’s Kerala state. “We are from the Nepal Defence Army [NDA], and we killed Fr. Prakash [Moyalan]. Our spies are everywhere. All of you are under surveillance. You better be on your guard.”

Nepal’s first bishop, Father Anthony Sharma, said he also received a similarly threatening call.

“Don’t engage in conversions,” the caller warned him. “Otherwise, we will chop you into little pieces.”

Most people who received the calls said the Nepali-speaking callers asserted that they were not against Christians. The jarring note came from their insistently as king if the recipients were Nepalese or Indian.

“The threats seem to have been directed towards Indians,” said Fr. Sharma. “Two more Indian priests, who had been working with Fr. Prakash in eastern Nepal on village development and education projects, also received warnings on the phone.”

Fr. Vianney estimated that there are about 40-45 Indian priests in Nepal. They are mostly from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa and West Bengal. Indian priests, he said, are the softest targets.

“If a western priest comes under attack, his government will take it up immediately,” he said. “If a Nepalese priest is attacked, other Nepalese and the media will raise a hue and cry. But the Indian government doesn’t take up cudgels on behalf of its citizens in Nepal, and people feel they can be targeted with impunity.”

After Fr. Moyalan’s death, Christian leaders gave a report to the Indian Embassy in Nepal, but they said there has been no discernible official action.

“Police arrested five men, said to be members of the NDA,” said Fr. Sharma. “But we don’t know what happened after that.”

 

Threatening Calls

Fr. Moyalan’s murder marked a period of violence directed towards Christians and triggered growing fear in the community.

On July 18, 17 days after the attack at the Don Bosco School in Sirsiya in which Fr. Moyalan was killed, a bomb exploded inside the Protestant Jyoti Church in Banke district in southern Nepal.

Pamphlets left at the venue claimed the explosion to be the handiwork of the NDA.

Soon different Christian missions started receiving threatening calls. Alarmed Jesuits closed down the Don Bosco School and were on the verge of closing a second one, St. Mary’s School in Biratnagar, the home town of Nepal’s prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala.

Little is known about the NDA, a shadowy organization that hit the headlines last year when it claimed responsibility for a couple of minor explosions at the office of the former Maoist guerrillas in Kathmandu.

According to Nepalese weekly Ghatana R Bichar, it is run by a former policeman, who adopted the nom de guerre Parivartan, meaning “change.” The former policeman has claimed that NDA aims to re-establish Nepal as a Hindu kingdom and is training Hindu suicide bombers.

Parivartan also claims NDA has a large army of trained soldiers and has been putting together an arsenal of explosives, the ingredients for which are smuggled from India across the 1,800-kilometer open border.

Since the fall of the government headed by Gyanendra, the last king of Nepal, over two dozen armed gangs have been spreading terror in southern Nepal, the NDA among them. They are known to be involved in extortion, abduction and, at times, killings.

The NDA pamphlets left at the crime sites project a 21-point agenda, including restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, driving out all Muslims, putting an end to conversions, banning the slaughter of cows (considered a holy animal by Hindus) and a ban on having more than two children. The latter directive targets the Muslim population in southern Nepal, who consider family planning to be unlawful.

Anger grew among Nepal’s Christians over the government’s failure to provide security, and on July 28 Fr. Sharma held a meeting with home secretary Umesh Mainali in which he asked for police protection for Christian organizations.

“We received a letter from the Nepal Catholic Society,” said Home Ministry spokesman Modraj Dotel. “It was forwarded to the police headquarters for action.”

Now, the calls have stopped and people are rallying, said Fr. Sharma.

St. Mary’s reopened after students’ parents promised that they would provide security.

The Jesuits run 30 schools in Nepal and 40 social service centers. The beneficiaries are non-Christians from low-income households who have little or no access to education and health care. The projects are meant for mostly women and children.

About 2.5 percent of Nepal’s 25 million population are Christians. The majority – nearly 75 percent – are Hindus.

“Till parliament overwhelmingly declared Nepal a secular state, Christians, as non-Hindus, had been under some threat from the Hindu country,” said Fr. Sharma. “But threats don’t prevent us from carrying on.”

Fr. Vianney added a postscript. “Now we will be careful.”  

Report from Compass Direct News