Originally published in Christian Today
The issue of religious freedom in Nepal has been raised at the UN this week, after the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) jointly highlighted the case of eight Christians who have been charged with attempting to convert children to Christianity after distributing a pamphlet about Jesus in two schools.
The case is the first to test Nepal’s religious freedom since the country’s new constitution was implemented in 2015.
The group, who were helping children through the trauma of last year’s major earthquake in the country, is alleged to have violated existing laws on conversion and Article 26, paragraph 3, of the constitution, which regulates religious freedom and states that “no person shall act or make others act in a manner which is contrary to public health, decency and morality, or… convert a person of one religion to another religion”.
The joint WEA and CSW oral statement to the UN Human Rights Council said the case “is an early indicator of how legal provisions may be invoked to restrict peaceful expressions of religious faith and the very basis of a secular state and society where human rights are protected”.
It urged Nepal to drop all charges against the eight Christians and amend Article 26 of the new constitution “to guarantee the right to choose and change one’s religion or belief, and the right to choose not to believe in a religion.”
Separately, the WEA said this week that the case “exposes [the constitution’s] disrespect for religious freedom and offers a glimpse into the new republic’s future”.
There have been reports that members of the group, arrested in June in the Charikot area of Nepal’s Dolakha District, were tortured by the authorities.
Five of the seven men and one woman were working for the organisation Teach Nepal when they distributed the material in the schools, which have Christian principals but do not exclusively teach Christian children. The two school principals and a pastor coordinating the efforts were also arrested.
The chairman of Teach Nepal, Barnabas Shrestha, said in July that the group were “invited by a pastor to do the counselling in the school,” adding that the police “wanted our people to say yes, they have preached the Gospel… which is not true”.
A spokesperson for CSW told Christian Today that the final hearing of the case was supposed to be held today, but was postponed until 26 October.
“So far in the court hearings there haven’t been any indication as to whether the charges will be upheld or removed,” the spokesperson said.
“The eight who are accused of attempting to convert children to Christianity are hoping and praying that the charges will be dropped because they did not give out any of that material forcefully – it was merely handed out as part of a trauma session on the earthquake.”
The spokesperson added: “We are very concerned about this case because if the charges are not dropped this could set a very negative precedent and Christians across Nepal could be arrested for merely handing out Christian literature. We are closely monitoring this case and are very concerned about it.
This is an early indication of how the law can be used. If freedom of faith is not upheld for all beliefs it will be very regressive to the country’s development.”
World Watch Monitor has said the freedom of Nepal’s Christians “is increasingly under threat.”
Also in July, the Government announced to all leaders of Christian orphanages and boarding schools in Kathmandu that it would close them down, impose large fines and confiscate possessions if just one Christian booklet was found in their institution. It was also announced that attending a Bible club or praying with children were banned.
Further, an anonymous source told World Watch Monitor that the Social Welfare Council, which approves foreign aid for various programmes, has stopped granting approval for Christian ones.
In 2015, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly voted to remain secular and resisted pressure from Hindu nationalists to become a Hindu state. Hours later, two churches were bombed. Pamphlets promoting Hindu nationalism were found at the churches and the nationalist group, Hindu Morcha Nepal, issued a statement to the media calling for Christian leaders to leave the country and for converts to Christianity to return to Hinduism.
The WEA said the joint arrest “clearly amounts to disrespect for religious freedom, which flows out of the new constitution.”
It added: “Nepal, of course, cannot be compared to Saudi Arabia or North Korea, but the progress of the people of any nation is often relative to the degree of civil freedom their governments recognise. Religious freedom is not something that benefits Christian nations in the West, as is often perceived in some countries.
This freedom allows people to live their lives with the dignity they have as human beings, and no nation should rob their citizens of it. It was for the dignity of the citizens that Nepal’s civil war fought to put an end to the monarchy. This is what Nepal’s leaders need to be reminded of.”
The individuals who have been charged are Shakti Pakhrin, the pastor of Charikot Christian Church; Prakash Pradhan, the principal of Mount Valley Academy; Bimal Shahi, the principal of Modern Nepal School, and Teach Nepal staff Banita Dangol, Balkrishna Rai, Philip Tamang, Kiran Dahal and Bhimsen Tiwari.