Nepal: first religious freedom case under new constitution

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported in December 2016 that the final hearing in the case was postponed four times this year before it was held on 6 December and the court delivered an oral verdict dropping all charges and calling for the bail money to be returned to the eight Christians. The written verdict is expected within a month.

Pastor Tanka Subedi, founding member and chair of Dharmik Chautari Nepal and Religious Liberty Forum Nepal (RLF) said: “We are very happy with the court’s decision. This has raised our trust in justice and democracy in Nepal”.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “We welcome this acquittal of the eight Christians in Charikot. However, we join our voices with civil society in Nepal in urging the government of Nepal to amend Section 26 of the new constitution and ensure that it – along with the draft penal code –guarantees full freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. The right to freedom of religion or belief is of particular importance in Nepal as the country recently made the transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democratic republic.”

Original story

World Watch Monitor reports that eight Christian counsellors face trial later this week, Nepal’s first religious freedom case since the country’s new constitution was implemented in 2015. They were arrested for distributing a pamphlet about Jesus in a Christian school while helping children through the trauma of last year’s earthquake.

The seven men and one woman arrested on 9 June were charged with trying to convert children to Christianity by distributing the pamphlet during a trauma seminar. Anything perceived as evangelizing is outlawed in the new constitution.

The counsellors were working for Teach Nepal. Barnabas Shrestha, chairman of Teach Nepal, says they were “invited by a pastor to do the counselling in the school”. While it is a Christian school, not all pupils are Christians.

Shrestha denies the counsellors were trying to convert children. The police making the arrests “wanted our people to say yes, they have preached the Gospel …which is not true”.

The freedom of Nepal’s Christians is increasingly under threat.

Last week, according to a missionary in Nepal, the government announced to all leaders of Christian orphanages and boarding schools in Kathmandu that it would impose huge fines, close them down and confiscate possessions should they find just one Christian booklet in their institution.

The government also announced that praying with children or letting them attend a Bible club is prohibited.

Another Christian Nepali contact, who wants to remain anonymous, told World Watch Monitor that the Social Welfare Council, which approves foreign aid used to conduct programs, has stopped granting approval for Christian activities.

When Nepal decided to remain a secular, rather than become a Hindu, state it was a disappointment to Hindu nationalist groups.

In September 2015, hours after Nepal’s Constituent Assembly rejected calls to revert to a Hindu state, two churches were bombed. Pamphlets promoting Hindu nationalism were found at each of the churches and nationalist group, Hindu Morcha Nepal, issued a press statement calling for Christian leaders to leave the country and for converts to Christianity to return to Hinduism.

The eight counsellors remain on bail awaiting trial, expected to be held on July 23.

Bishop Narayan Sharma  of the Believers Church, said “We thought with the secular state status, we have much freedom. But the incident and the attitude and the approach from the state, it shows they want to be more strict and they want to just keep the limitation on Christianity, and they don’t want it to grow further.”

The government sent a circular to non-governmental organizations in June, saying they can’t have ‘propagation of religion’ as a goal. Churches in Nepal are registered as NGOs, as no law provides for the formation of a religious group.

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, Ex-Prime Minister of Nepal, said the arrest of Christians was an isolated incident. “It will be harmful to relate it with the constitutional provisions of the country. The country is fully secular. All religions have equal freedom, and the state makes no discrimination. The state is not mandated to protect the majority religion. The state is mandated to play a neutral role, to protect all religions, all religious beliefs. To cater to fears of certain quarters – that Nepal may be rapidly converted into another religion and that the traditional religions of Nepal, not only Hinduism … Hinduism, Buddhism and many other indigenous religions are practiced in Nepal … just to clear doubts and fears of some of the people that they will be swamped by other religions than the native religions of Nepal – some provisions were initiated. But it is not against secularism.”