Threat of Return to Hindu State in Nepal Looms


With deadline for new constitution approaching, Christians fear end of secular government.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 30 (CDN) — Four years after Nepal became officially secular, fear is growing that the country could revert to the Hindu state it was till 2006, when proclaiming Christ was a punishable offense and many churches functioned clandestinely to avoid being shut down.

Concerns were heightened after Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra Shah, once regarded as a Hindu god, broke the silence he has observed since Nepal abolished monarchy in 2008. During his visit to a Hindu festival this month, the former king said that monarchy was not dead and could make a comeback if people so desired.

Soon after that, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister and respected leader of the largest ruling party, said that instead of getting a new constitution, Nepal should revive an earlier one. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom with a constitutional monarch.

There is now growing doubt that the ruling parties will not be able to fashion the new constitution they promised by May.

“We feel betrayed,” said Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal. “The Constituent Assembly we elected to give us a new constitution that would strengthen democracy and secularism has frittered away the time and opportunity given to it.”

The clamor for a Hindu state has been growing as the May 28 deadline for the new constitution draws near. When a Hindu preacher, Kalidas Dahal, held a nine-day prayer ritual in Kathmandu this month seeking reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, thousands of people flocked to him. The throng included three former prime ministers and top leaders of the ruling parties.

“The large turnout signals that Hinduism is enshrined in the hearts of the people and can’t be abolished by the government,” said Hridayesh Tripathi, a former minister and Constituent Assembly member whose Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party is the fifth-largest in the ruling alliance. “It was a mistake to abolish Hinduism in a hurry.”

Another blow for a Hindu state was struck by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), the only party that fought the 2008 election in support of monarchy and a Hindu state. It is now calling for a referendum. As a pressure tactic, it paralyzed the capital and its two neighboring cities in February by calling a general strike.

“The election gave the Constituent Assembly the mandate of writing a new constitution, not deciding issues of national importance,” said Kamal Thapa, the RPP-N chief who also was home minister during the brief government headed by Gyanendra. “Most people in Nepal want a Hindu state and a constitutional king. If their demand is not heeded, they will feel excluded and refuse to follow the new constitution. We are asking the government to hold a referendum on the two issues before May 28.”

With only two months left, it is clear the demand can’t be met if the constitution is to come into effect within the stipulated time. Now the specter of anarchy and violence hangs over Nepal.

Nepal’s Maoists, who fought a 10-year war to make Nepal a secular republic and who remain the former king’s most bitter enemy, say attempts have begun to whip up riots in the name of a Hindu state. The former guerrillas also allege that the campaign for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion is backed by ministers, politicians from the ruling parties and militant religious groups from India.

Effectively Hindu

Even if a new, secular constitution is approved by the deadline, there is still no guarantee that the rights of religious minorities would be protected.

Nilambar Acharya, who heads the committee that is drafting the new constitution, said it would be merely a broad guideline for the government; compatible laws would have to be drafted to protect rights.

“The previous constitution abolished ‘untouchability’ [a practice among Hindus of treating those at the bottom of the social ladder as outcasts],” Acharya told Compass. “But untouchability still exists in Nepal. To achieve all that the constitution promises, the mindset of society has to be changed first. For that, you need political will.”

Though Nepal became secular in 2006, Hinduism still gets preferential treatment. The state allocates funds for institutions like the Kumari, the tradition of choosing prepubescent girls as protective deities of the state and worshipping them as “living goddesses.” The state also gave money to organizers of a controversial, five-yearly religious festival, the Gadhimai Fair, where tens of thousands of birds are slaughtered as offerings to Hindu gods despite international condemnation.

There is no support, predictably, for Christian festivals. When the Constituent Assembly was formed – partly though election and partly by nomination – no Christian name was proposed even though the prime minister was authorized to nominate members from unrepresented communities.

Christian leaders want such religious bias abolished. Rokaya of the National Council of Churches of Nepal said Christians have recommended full freedom of religion in the new constitution: allowing one to follow the religion of one’s choice, to change one’s religion if desired or have the right not to be associated with any religion.

The churches have also asked the state not to interfere in religious matters.

“We are asking the government not to fund any religious activity, not to be part of any religious appointments and not to allow public land for any religious event,” Rokaya said.

The recommendations, however, may not be heeded. During their brief stint in power, the Maoists tried to stop state assistance for the Kumari. It led to violence and a general strike in the capital, forcing the party to withdraw the decision.

In its 2009 report on religious freedom in Nepal, the U.S. Department of State notes that while the interim constitution officially declared the country secular, “the president, in his capacity as head of state, attended major Hindu religious ceremonies over which the king previously presided.”

It also notes that there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

“Those who converted to a different religious group occasionally faced violence and were ostracized socially,” it states. “Those who chose to convert to other religious groups, in particular Hindu citizens who converted to Islam or Christianity, were sometimes ostracized. They occasionally faced isolated incidents of hostility or discrimination from Hindu extremist groups. Some reportedly were forced to leave their villages.”

Dr. Ramesh Khatri, executive director of Association for Theological Education in Nepal, has experienced such persecution first-hand. When he became a Christian in 1972, his father disowned him. Then in 1984 he was arrested for holding a Bible camp. Though the case against him was dropped in 1990 after a pro-democracy movement, Khatri said hatred of Christians still persists.

“Christians can never sleep peacefully at night,” he said wryly. “The new constitution will make Nepal another India, where Christians are persecuted in Orissa, Gujarat and Karnataka.” The Oxford University-educated Khatri, who writes a column in a Nepali daily, said violent responses to his articles show how Nepal still regards its Christians.

“I am attacked as a ‘Rice Christian,’” he said. “It is a derogatory term implying I converted for material benefits. The antagonistic feeling society has towards Christians will not subside with the new constitution, and we can’t expect an easy life. The Bible says that, and the Bible is true.”

Christians continue to face persecution and harassment. In March, missions resource organization Timeless Impact International (TII) noted that a church in northern Nepal, near the foothills of Mt. Everest, was attacked by a local mob.

The newly established church in Dolakha district was attacked during a fellowship meeting in January. An ethnic mob headed by religious leaders destroyed the church meeting place, assaulted participants and warned them not to speak about Christianity in the village, TII said.

The situation, even now, remained unchanged.

“None of the church members have been able to return to their homes,” TII stated. “They feel completely unsafe and at risk.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Lutheran denomination splitting after gay pastor vote


The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination is splitting following a controversial decision at its August conference to allow noncelibate homosexuals to serve as pastors, reports Baptist Press.

It will take months to determine how truly significant the change to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA) is, but a conservative group of Lutherans calling themselves Lutheran CORE already is calling for the more orthodox churches to leave the denomination. Lutheran CORE leaders voted Nov. 18 to form a new Lutheran body, and churches nationwide are now taking sides in the dispute. It takes a two-thirds vote for a church to leave the ELCA and join Lutheran CORE, which has formed a committee that will draft a proposal for how the new church body will function. The committee’s recommendations will be released in February and voted on in August.

The ELCA claims 4.8 million members and 10,500 churches.

"Many ELCA members and congregations have said that they want to sever ties with the ELCA because of the ELCA’s continued movement away from traditional Christian teachings," Lutheran CORE chair Paull Spring said. "The vote on sexuality opened the eyes of many to how far the ELCA has moved from Biblical teaching."

Meeting in Minneapolis in August, delegates to the ELCA’s biennial conference voted 559-451 to allow openly practicing homosexuals to serve as pastors. It became the largest denomination in America with such a policy. The Episcopal Church, a smaller denomination, has a similar stance.

The Minneapolis conference was followed by a meeting of 1,200 Lutheran CORE supporters Sept. 25-26 in Fishers, Ind., where delegates to that meeting voted to authorize the Lutheran CORE Steering Committee to "initiate conversations among the congregations" toward a possible "reconfiguration" of Lutherans. That steering committee voted Nov. 18 to begin the process of forming a new denomination. The word "CORE" is an acronym for "Coalition for Renewal."

Neither side is predicting how many churches will leave or stay. In Erskine, Minn., 80 percent of Rodnes Lutheran Church members voted Oct. 18 to leave the ELCA, the INFORUM.com website reported. But in Waseca, Minn., Nov. 22, 77 percent of Grace Lutheran Church members voted to stay, the Waseca County News newspaper reported.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, believes the issue of homosexuality eventually will divide all mainline denominations.

"You either approve gay and lesbian sexually active pastors and clergy or you don’t," he told Baptist Press. "Opinion is divided enough in the mainline denominations that if you approve it, then you’re going to have conservatives leaving and if you don’t, then you’re going to have liberals leaving. I believe that this issue will end up reconfiguring the entire mainline Protestant landscape. It is in the process of dividing the Episcopalians. It’s dividing now the Lutherans. It’s in the process of dividing the Presbyterians, and it eventually will end up dividing the Methodists."

Land asked, rhetorically, referencing the ELCA’s namesake, "Does anyone have any doubt what Martin Luther believed about this? The question is whether you’re going to be under the authority of Scripture or not. And, clearly, there are large chunks of mainline Protestantism that have decided they are going to stand in judgment of Scripture."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Maldives: Almost no religious freedom for migrant workers


Just as Maldivian citizens do not have the right to religious freedom – Sunni Islam in the state-approved form is the only permitted faith – migrant workers too are denied this right, reports Odd Larsen, Forum 18 News Service.

The Maldives prevents the import of non-Muslim books and other religious items, for example by searching foreigners’ luggage for “un-Islamic” materials. Migrant workers are banned from practising non-Muslim faiths even privately, while the lack of privacy in which many live makes it almost impossible to worship “unnoticed by locals”, as one migrant worker put it to Forum 18 News Service.

Some 80,000 migrant workers – mostly Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus from South Asia – make up about a quarter of the country’s population, but are mostly in low-status jobs and find it difficult to challenge human rights violations.

The government has not acted on United Nations recommendations to grant migrant workers religious freedom. The International Labour Organisation – which the Maldives has just joined – told Forum 18 that “although freedom of religion may not exist in Maldives, migrant workers can count on ILO protection when it comes to rights at work and working conditions.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

THE UNITED NATIONS UNLEASHES A NEW THREAT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM


The United Nation’s Human Rights Council has passed the Religion Defamation Resolution, much to the dismay of Christians, reports MNN.

Muslim countries urged passage of non-binding resolution to protect religion from criticism, specifically Islam. The resolution urges countries to provide “protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general.”

Paul Estabrooks, minister-at-large with Open Doors, says, “This resolution sounds really good on paper, and we agree with the tolerance and harmony issues. But the very crux of the issue is our concern for the Christians who are a minority in dominant Muslim lands.”

He added that Muslim nations argued that Islam should be shielded from criticism in the media and other areas of public life. According to the Associated Press, Muslim countries cited Western criticism of Sharia Law (strict Islamic law) and cartoons depicting Muhammad, founder of Islam, as examples of unacceptable free speech.

Open Doors joins a coalition of more than 180 other non-governmental agencies from more than 50 countries which signed a statement last week protesting passing of the resolution. All voiced similar concern that the resolution could be used to justify anti-blasphemy, anti-conversion, or apostasy laws.

Keep praying for believers under fire. “They’ve already been limited in how they can live out their faith and defend charges–unjust charges–against them,” Estabrooks says. “We feel that this really does limit and marginalize Christians even more to where they are not even able to deal with the injustices that they confront.”

Open Doors USA President/CEO Dr. Carl Moeller urges, “Please join me in prayer that this resolution will not be put into practice by U.N. member states. Christianity is under attack around the world, and we as believers must speak out when confronted by injustice.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council is dominated by Muslim and African countries. Its resolutions are not binding but are meant to act as recommendations for U.N. member countries on issues of human rights, according to Associated Press.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

‘LEGAL’ PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS IN EU CONTINUES


Christian lobbyists in the UK are calling a pending EU directive that would introduce a policy similar to Britain’s Sexual Orientation Regulations to all member states, a “threat to religious freedom.” Pro-family activists fear that the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected grounds for discrimination may leave European Christians and others vulnerable to legal actions, reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

The proposed directive aims to outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods and services and may also outlaw ‘harassment.’

Critics have also said that the directive would mean that countries which legally recognise same-sex civil partnerships would be required to expand their provisions to include homosexual adoption. It is also feared that the directive’s definition of harassment is so broad that even explanations of Christian beliefs on sexual conduct or those of other religions like Islam, could fall foul of the law.

In April 2008, the BBC reported that the directive had been “shelved.” Jan Jarab of the Employment Department of the Commission told the BBC that “signals” from some member states indicated that there would not be the required unanimous consent on a blanket anti-discrimination law that would include “sexual orientation.”

In May 2008, however, the European Parliament issued a memo reminding MEPs of the “commitment to put forward a comprehensive directive covering disability, age, religion or belief and sexual orientation.”

Accordingly, the EU Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) last week voted to approve the final version of its report on the issue. This will now go to the EU Parliament for a vote in early April on whether to adopt the report as its own recommendations on the directive. Power to enact, amend or reject the directive lies with the Council of the European Union, a body composed of government representatives from each of the 27 member states.

The Christian Institute, the UK’s most prominent Christian lobby group, argues that similar laws in the UK and other nations have caused serious erosion of religious liberty and the exclusion of Christianity from the public sphere.

The Christian Institute called the “harassment” provision one of the “most alarming” aspects of the proposed legislation. The directive defines it as the creation of an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”

(With files from the Christian Institute)

Report from the Christian Telegraph

LUTHERANS MIGHT ALLOW PASTORS TO BE IN HOMOSEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released proposals Thursday, Feb. 19, that seek to change Christian teaching on homosexuality and would permit pastors to be in same-sex sexual relationships, reports LifeSiteNews.com.

In response, leaders of Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform) announced Thursday that they will work to defeat the proposals that ask the ELCA to depart from biblical teaching on sexuality.

Lutheran CORE is a coalition of pastors, lay people, congregations and reforming groups that seeks to preserve the authority of the Bible in the ELCA.

“These recommendations mark a significant departure from the church’s commitment to Scripture as the source and norm of its faith and life,” said the Rev. Paull Spring of State College, Pa., chair of the Lutheran CORE Steering Committee.

“The proposal for change in standards for clergy departs from the clear teaching of Scripture,” said Spring, the retired bishop of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod.

Responses to a 2004 study on homosexuality showed that a significant majority of ELCA members (57 percent) opposed change to accepted Christian teaching on homosexual behavior. Only 22 percent of ELCA members favored change in church teaching to allow for the blessing of same-sex unions or the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

Report from the Christian Telegraph