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

Governor outlaws Christianity, arrests believers in Colombia

28 indigenous Colombian Christians have been imprisoned since October for refusing to denounce their faith, reports MNN.

Logan Maurer with International Christian Concern says the central government gave local governors relative autonomy. "They have devolved power to a governor there who has outlawed Christianity. He has said that if anybody there is a Christian, they’re going to go to prison."

With that announcement, the local governor over the Kogui (ko-gee) called the Christians together on October 27th. "He was holding a meeting to discuss this issue," said Maurer, "and he surprised these Christians by saying, ‘You’re all under arrest.’"

The governor wants them to maintain more of the traditional identity to the tribal region, which includes animism. The group is still being held because they refuse to reconvert.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide says at last report, two of the kidnapped infants were seriously ill. The governor and his allies also humiliated non-Christian leaders who had supported the Christians in the community and protected them from being expelled.

What’s especially odd about this case is that the Colombian government has apparently refused to act on behalf of the Christians. That’s prompting outcry from human rights watchdog groups. Maurer adds that the Colombian government is "willing to ignore its own Constitution and its international agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR, the ICSECR, and the American Convention on Human Rights–all of which explicitly protect the right of individuals to choose their own faith and to convert of their own free will."

ICC remains concerned about what this means for other believers. Maurer explains, "There’s over 100 individuals that consider themselves Christians and would be affected. If this governor continues to imprison men, women and children, as he has done, you could be looking at up to 100 people in prison for their faith."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


Muslim family pays price for son’s conversion; father shunned, ordered confined to home.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, October 16 (Compass Direct News) – Muslim clerics and neighbors have ordered the father of a man who converted to Catholicism to remain confined to his house until retaliatory punishment can be exacted from the convert.

“Are you not ashamed that your son became Christian?” the founder of a mosque here asked Ruhul Amin Khandaker, father of a 32-year-old businessman who went to Australia earlier this year to court a Philippine Catholic woman, converting to her faith in April. “Why did you not sacrifice your son like cattle before telling the news to us?”

Khandaker has become a social outcast whose family lives under threat from fellow Muslims, in violation of Bangladesh’s constitution and international human rights safeguards. His son, Rashidul Amin Khandaker, has applied for protection from Australian immigration officials as he believes police in 88 percent-Muslim Bangladesh would do nothing to protect him from Islamists threatening to kill him.

“They will try to kill me anywhere, any time in Bangladesh, and the police and the authority will not protect me,” Rashidul Khandaker wrote in his plea to Australian authorities. “There are records that show a converted person is not protected by the police, authority and society.”

Khandaker’s life would be in danger if he returned to Bangladesh, said his brother-in-law, identified only as Siddik, adding that “we are also surviving in the society at our own peril.”

Rashidul Khandaker’s brother wrote him in May to cease all contact with the family. Rakibul Amin Khandaker stated in the letter that Muslim authorities had threatened to ostracize the family because of his brother’s conversion, and that his life would be in danger if he returned to Bangladesh as Muslim extremists believe they would get to heaven by punishing him.

Muslim leaders in Dhaka have ordered Khandaker’s 65-year-old father to disown his son and exclude him from his wealth and property.

“If he comes to Bangladesh, you must hand him over to us and we will punish him,” the founder of the mosque told the elder Khandaker.

Khandaker, who operates an oil lubricant refining business in the Kutubkhali area under Jatrabari police jurisdiction in central Dhaka, told Compass of the grief he experienced when his son informed the family from Sydney that he had become a Christian.

“My other sons and relatives informed it to the nearby cleric of the mosque so that the cleric could console me,” he said. “Unfortunately the cleric was so furious . . . [He] told me that, ‘You cannot keep any relationship with your son. A man of a noble Muslim family cannot be a Christian, and the society cannot accept it.”


Home Ransacked

When Rashidul Khandaker, who worked as director of marketing in his father’s business before going to Australia to pursue a relationship with a woman he met over the Internet, telephoned friends in Dhaka about his conversion, seven or eight of them broke into his house to loot his computer, scanner, printer, documents, sofa and other valuables, his father said.

“They told me, ‘We will return everything when your son comes back. Whenever he will come back, you must hand him over to us – we will take revenge for his activities. Until he comes, don’t mix with the people in the society and stay in your house.’”

The elder Khandaker said his son’s former friends also threatened to harm the family if they informed police about the looting.

“We did not file any case against them. If we file a case, they will do more harm and we can not stay in the society,” Khandaker said.

After receiving the threats from the local residents and Muslim leaders to remain confined to his house in front of his three sons and other relatives, Khandaker’s blood pressure spiked and he suffered a stroke, he said.

“Local doctors did not come to my house to treat me – they are afraid of the society and they also hate us,” he said. “I was taken to the hospital. The doctors did a brain scan and they said there was a hemorrhage on the left side of brain.”

The ostracizing of the elder Khandaker was especially painful during Ramadan, culminating with the festival of Eid al-Fitre on Oct. 2 after a month of day-long fasting and nightly feasting.

“Nobody, including neighbors and relatives, did come to my house, and I could not go to anybody’s house,” Khandaker said. “My relatives did not come lest they be in trouble. I was alone during the festival, and nothing has happened like this in my 65 years of life.”

Yet Khandaker said he does not want to deprive his son of his property and wealth. “If all of my property and wealth is destroyed, I can tolerate that, but one thing I cannot tolerate is to carry the coffin of my son on my shoulders,” Khandaker said.

Any unwillingness of authorities to defend the rights of Rashidul Khandaker or his Muslim family members against the threats against them would violate the freedom of religion asserted in the Constitution of Bangladesh, which states in Article 41.1 in Part 3 that every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion.

“My son changed his faith according to his will, and our constitution supports this kind of activity,” the elder Khandaker said. “Why the constitutional rights should not be realized in the society?”

The social pressures also defy international human rights safeguards guaranteeing freedom of religion. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Bangladesh is a party, says that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

“My son converted to Christianity according to his own will – we did not support it, and we are not converted. Why should we bear the brunt of his faith?” said the elder Khandaker. “I want to get rid of such a claustrophobic, social-outcast life for my son’s conversion to Christianity.”  

Report from Compass Direct News