Christians’ fears little allayed; armed outfits mushrooming.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 10 (CDN) — Pastor John Vanlalhriata was reading the Bible at his home in Kathmandu valley Sunday afternoon (Sept. 6) when a friend called to give him the news that electrified the Christian community.
“Ram Prasad Mainali has been arrested by police along with three more accomplices,” the friend said. “Finally, our prayers have been answered.”
The 36-year-old Mainali, who claims to have worked in the national army, became a household name in May after the little-known underground organization he headed, the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), claimed responsibility for placing a bomb in one of Nepal’s oldest churches during mass, killing two women and a schoolgirl and injuring more than a dozen people.
Though police claimed a breakthrough in less than a fortnight, saying they had arrested a 27-year-old woman who planted the bomb in the prayer hall of the Catholic Assumption Church on May 23, the suspected mastermind remained elusive. Despite a red alert for Mainali’s arrest, he remained at large in the former Hindu kingdom, continuing to intimidate Christians by ordering them to leave the country or face further violence. He was arrested on Saturday (Sept. 5) in Biratnagar.
The NDA, founded in 2006 after Nepal deposed King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah and became a secular republic, claimed to be grooming an army of suicide bombers in a bid to turn Nepal into a Hindu state again. Since last year, it began to strike in earnest in eastern Nepal, Mainali’s home region.
In March 2008, the NDA bombed a mosque in eastern Nepal, killing two people at prayer, and four months later it gunned down a Catholic priest, the Rev. John Prakash Moyalan, at his residence.
“The Christian community is relieved that Mainali has been arrested,” Pastor Vanlalhriata of the Believers’ Church in Kathmandu told Compass. “They feel Mainali would now learn that it was not good to persecute the church and threaten God’s people. But they are also apprehensive that he might be released soon.”
After the initial joy, that thought is the prospect haunting Nepal’s Christian community – that Mainali and his accomplices could be released soon, either because of legal loopholes or the culture of impunity pervading Nepal since 1996, when Maoist guerrillas began an armed revolt and triggered grave human rights violations for a decade.
“We will have to wait and watch what happens now,” said Balan Joseph, a 42-year-old garment factory employee who lost his teenage daughter, Celeste, in the bombing; eight days later, his wife Buddha Laxmi succumbed to an internal hemorrhage from the blast. “Mainali’s arrest doesn’t mean his gang has been wiped out. Unless the government takes tough action, the morale of all potential killers will rise, and recruits will continue to flock to these gangs.”
Christians have been further anguished by the revelation that Mainali had been arrested previously for an explosion. There were no casualties, and a court granted him bail. On being freed, he promptly went underground, resurfacing Saturday (Sept. 5) in the tea garden district of Jhapa, in eastern Nepal, when police arrested him on a tipoff.
Chirendra Satyal, spokesperson at the Assumption Church, said the possibility of release is the overriding concern. He said a priest told him, only half-jokingly, “I hope the authorities don’t release him again.”
Satyal said he also feels that the threat to Christians has not ended.
“There is a culture of impunity in Nepal,” he told Compass. “This government may fall, and the new one that replaces it may decide to release Mainali. Or he can have a successor stepping into his shoes.”
A sense of insecurity still pervades the Assumption Church, which has not relaxed safety measures even after the arrest. Cars are not allowed inside the compound, and handbags have to be left at the gate. Professional security guards have been employed, reinforced by policemen deployed by the government.
The arrests have also failed to erase the terror from the hearts of those who were present in the church on that fatal day, especially the children. While widower Joseph said God has given him strength to bear his loss, his surviving children – Chelsea, 11, and Sylvester, 9, are still traumatized.
“My friends told me about the arrest,” Chelsea told Compass. “But I am still afraid. So is my brother. And though he too knows about the arrest, he has not talked about it with us.”
On Tuesday, authorities brought Mainali to Kathmandu valley, and he appeared before the chief district officer, who gave police permission to hold him in remand for 10 days for further investigation.
“We feel the threat of religious attacks has ended,” said Police Superintendent Devendra Subedi, whose team arrested Mainali. “A day later, we also arrested Vinod Pandey, who headed another underground organization, the Ranavir Sena, which too was demanding the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. With the heads in the police net, the outfits are bound to collapse.”
Pandey, also arrested from eastern Nepal with an aide, was reportedly planning a series of bomb attacks in the capital and three other major towns: Pokhara, a popular tourist destination, and Biratnagar and Birgunj, two key trade hubs.
Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal (NCCN), said the arrests of the militant group leaders will not resolve the problems of violence in Nepal.
“There are over 100 armed groups in Nepal that are engaged in extortion, abductions and killings,” said Rokaya, who is also a member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission. “Nepal passed through a decade of armed conflict to reach a transitional period where there is still political instability due to the weak government. Many armed groups are trying to take advantage of the vacuum. It’s not only Christians who are suffering, the entire nation is.”
In the Terai, lowlands in southern Nepal running across the open border with neighboring India, armed gangs have mushroomed since the fall of the royal government three years ago. The Believers’ Church is concentrated there. It is part of Christian Unity, an umbrella of churches of different denominations on the plains that the NDA has repeatedly threatened.
The NCCN is putting its hope in a new constitution being drafted by a 601-member Constituent Assembly in consultation with different political parties, organizations and communities. It is scheduled to be presented in May 2010. The NCCN has submitted its recommendations for protection of religious minorities to the Constituent Assembly, as well as to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and President Ram Baran Yadav.
The NCCN’s Rokaya said the recommendations can be summed up in four points: freedom to practice the religion of choice; freedom to change it (a tacit reference to past laws that made conversion a punishable offence); freedom not to practice any religion; and the state not interfering in religious matters.
Report from Compass Direct News