Prospects Dim for Religious Freedom in Nepal

Right to share faith could harm Nepal’s Hindu identity, lawmakers believe.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 29 (CDN) — A new constitution that Nepal’s parliament is scheduled to put into effect before May 28 may not include the right to propagate one’s faith.

The draft constitution, aimed at completing the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy, contains provisions in its “religious freedom” section that prohibit anyone from converting others from one religion to another.

Most political leaders in the Himalayan country seemed unaware of how this prohibition would curb religious freedom.

“Nepal will be a secular state – there is no other way,” said Sushil Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress, Nepal’s “Grand Old Party,” but he added that he was not aware of the proposal to restrict the right to evangelism.

“Forcible conversions cannot be allowed, but the members of the Constituent Assembly [acting parliament] should be made aware of [the evangelism ban’s] implications,” Koirala, a veteran and one of the most influential politicians of the country, told Compass.

Gagan Thapa, another leader of the Nepali Congress, admitted that banning all evangelistic activities could lead to undue restrictions.

“Perhaps, the words, ‘force, inducement and coercion’ should be inserted to prevent only unlawful conversions,” he told Compass.

Man Bahadur Bishwakarma, also from the Nepali Congress, said that of all the faith communities in Nepal, Christians were most active in converting others, sometimes unethically.

“There are problems in Hinduism, such as the caste hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean you should convert out of it,” he said. “I believe in reforming one’s religion.”

Asked if the restriction on converting others violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Akal Bahadur of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) said, “It may, but there was a general consensus on it [the prohibition]. Besides, it is still a draft, not the final constitution.”

Nepal signed the ICCPR on May 14, 1991. Article 18 of the ICCPR includes the right to manifest one’s religion, which U.N. officials have interpreted as the right to evangelistic and missionary activities.

Akal Bahadur and Thapa are members of the Committee on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles, which was tasked to propose the scope of religious freedom and other rights in the draft constitution. This committee, one of 11 thematic panels, last year submitted a preliminary draft to the Assembly suggesting that a person should be allowed to decide whether to convert from one religion to another, but that no one should convert anyone else.

Binda Pandey, chairperson of the fundamental rights committee and member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), told Compass that it was now up to the Assembly to decide whether this provision violates religious freedom.

The Constitution Committee is condensing the preliminary drafts by all the committees as one draft constitution. At least 288 contentious issues arose out of the 11 committees, and the Constitution Committee has resolved 175 of them, Raju Shakya of the Kathmandu-based Centre for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD) told Compass.

The “religious freedom” provision with its ban on evangelism did not raise an eyebrow, however, as it is among the issues listed under the “Area of Agreement” on the CCD Web site.

Once compiled, the draft constitution will be subject to a public consultation, after which another draft will be prepared for discussion of clauses in the Constitutional Assembly; provisions will be implemented on a two-thirds majority, Shakya said.


Hindu Identity

Thapa of the fundamental rights committee indicated that religious conversion could become a contentious issue if the proposed restriction is removed. Even the notion of a secular state is not wholly accepted in the country.

“If you hold a referendum on whether Nepal should become a secular state, the majority will vote against it,” Thapa said.

Most Hindus see their religion as an essential part of the country’s identity that they want to preserve, he added.

Dr. K.B. Rokaya, the only Christian member of Nepal’s National Commission for Human Rights, said Nepal’s former kings created and imposed a Hindu identity for around 240 years because it suited them; under the Hindu ethos, a king should be revered as a god. Most of the numerous Hindu temples of Nepal were built under the patronage of the kings.

Rokaya added that Christians needed to be more politically active. The Assembly does not have even one Christian member.

According to the 2001 census, over 80 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people are Hindu. Christians are officially .5 percent, but their actual number is believed to be much higher.

Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until 2006, when a people’s movement led by former Maoist guerrillas and supported by political parties, including the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, ousted King Gyanendra.

An interim constitution was enacted in 2007, and the Constituent Assembly was elected through Nepal’s first fully democratic election a year later. The Assembly was supposed to promulgate a new constitution by May 28, 2010, but its term was extended by one year.

It is still uncertain, however, whether the approaching deadline will be met due to persistent disagreements among parties. The Maoist party has 220 members, the Nepali Congress 110, and the Unified Marxist Leninist 103 in the 575-member Assembly.

Rokaya, a member of the newly formed United Christians Alliance of Nepal, comprising a majority of Christian denominations, said Christians would continue to ask for full religious freedom. The use of inducement or force for conversions is deplorable, but the right to preach the tenets of one’s religion is a fundamental freedom, he added.

Report from Compass Direct News

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 


Backlash erupts against Christian opponents of proposed constitution.

QUITO, Ecuador, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Catholic authorities report death threats and several acts of vandalism of church property in response to church opposition to several articles in Ecuador’s proposed new constitution.

In the port city of Guayaquil, a group of people were reported to have entered a chapel, grabbed the eucharistic host, tore it apart, spat on it and stepped on it.

That vandalism was reportedly the third that has occurred in recent weeks as frustrated supporters of ruling socialist party Alianza PAIS lash out at the Catholic Church for criticizing their newly-proposed constitution. Similar desecrations were reported in recent weeks at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Nobol and the Church of the Holy Supper in Guayaquil.

Archbishop Antonio Arregui Yarza of Guayaquil has received numerous death threats, as has pro-life leader Amparo Medina, who recently received a dead rat inside of a shoebox with a note attached that read “death to pro-lifers.” In addition, the president of the Never Impunity Movement (Movimiento Impunidad Jamás) has called for the archbishop’s arrest and “preventative imprisonment” because of the church’s opposition to the constitution.

María Morán Bajaña, the movement’s president, said that the church’s campaign was a step back in time and was an improper role for church leadership.

The Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference said that the church would not officially campaign against the document but would alert the Ecuadorian people to several provisions that it called “non-negotiable.”

In particular, church officials have said that they disagreed with provisions that could allow for abortions and homosexual unions as well as the concentration of power in the president’s hands.

The national assembly that debated the new document’s 444 articles had wrestled with those topics for weeks, weighing possible outcomes if the church decided to openly oppose it and call for a “no” vote in the referendum. Pro-life groups had demonstrated in front of the assembly hall as the issue was debated.

The church chose, however, not to officially campaign against the constitution but to raise its concern about some of the articles, as well as call for education in churches about the controversial issues. Nearly 90 percent of Ecuadorians consider themselves Roman Catholic.

In “themes such as abortion, the family, education and religious liberty, the bishops of Ecuador decided to discuss those points in the light of pronouncements by Pope Benedict XVI,” said Archbishop Arregui, president of the Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference.

Arregui criticized the draft document, saying the language on abortion is ambiguous. He said that the new constitution did not clearly define life as beginning at conception nor denote family as consisting of a man and a woman, but rather allowed for non-traditional family types.

“A union between homosexuals is not a family,” Arregui argued.


Religious Freedom

Protestant leaders have also lined up in opposition to some of the document’s provisions.

Pastors Francisco Loor and Nelson Zavala have charged that at least 200 of the constitution’s articles are “immoral.” They also challenged President Rafael Correa’s description of church opposition as antiquated.

Government officials, including Correa, have sharply criticized church leaders for their position and accused unnamed priests of disseminating erroneous information in sermons about the documents.

“This is a constitution that defends life,” Correa said. “The text is clear. The rest is simply ignorance or bad faith to keep on playing the games of those groups who want power.”

Augusto Barrera, coordinator between the Executive and the Constituent Assembly, said, “It is not true that the constitution favors abortion. It undoubtedly and clearly protects life and establishes protection and care from the very beginning, that is, conception.”

He also accused the church of being linked to opposition organizations that opposed Correa and his friendship with leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Correa also has questioned the church’s position concerning religious liberty in the document.

“The new constitution recognizes a person’s right to practice, keep, change or profess his religion in public or in private and to share it with others,” he said.

Arregui said the church is concerned about freedom of religion and the right of the church to operate freely.

“We will not enter into a discussion with the president nor limit our right of free expression, including the expression of our religious beliefs,” he said. “We will work to influence the Christian conscience about these issues. Each citizen is free to make his own conclusions about how they ought to vote.”


Indigenous Deity

In addition, the mention of an indigenous deity, Paccha Mama, in the proposed constitution has contributed to the rift between Ecuador’s president and Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders.

“We are worried that this invocation of an Incan deity, the Paccha Mama [Mother Earth], a divine being, among the indigenous groups is a worship of Paccha Mama,” said Pastor Loor, who leads an Assemblies of God church in the port city of Guayaquil.

“To include it in the constitution is to return to a time hundreds of years ago when fire and air were worshipped.”

In addition, Pastor Loor charged that the inclusion of Paccha Mama contradicted the new document’s reported secular nature.

The new constitution, which was approved by an elected assembly in late July and will be voted on in a national referendum on September 28, notes in its preface, “We, the sovereign people of Ecuador, celebrate nature, the Paccha Mama, that we are a part of and that is a vital part of our existence.” The document’s chapter on the rights of nature says, “The existence of nature, or Paccha Mama, where we reproduce life, has the right to be respected.”

Carlos Pilaminga, one of the representatives to the constitutional assembly of the indigenous political party Pachakutik, charged that Protestants and Roman Catholics do not understand the “indigenous vision of the cosmos.” Paccha Mama, he said, is not a deity but “is an eternal space where we live and of which we are a part. Pachakamak is our creator, what the Catholics call God and the evangelicals [Protestants] call Jehovah.”

“Our evangelical brothers do not comprehend our religiosity and spirituality,” Pilaminga added.

The constitution has been controversial in Ecuador and internationally because it is seen as consolidating the president’s power over various branches of government, including the banking system and the courts. The document also allows Correa to run for additional terms.

Recent polls have indicated that the constitution is growing in favor but still has not gained enough support to be approved. Ratification would need 50 percent-plus-one vote of those participating in the referendum.

Report from Compass Direct News