A report documents increased violence against Christians, fueled by discriminatory laws, although a grassroots interfaith movement offers some hope.
by Massimo Introvigne
Busy with the monumental violations of human rights and freedom of religion in China, the world has overlooked similar problems in nearby Nepal. This is the conclusion of a report by the specialized NGO International Christian Concern (ICC) released on November 9. Although it has a border dispute with China, Nepal has constantly voted in favor of Beijing at the United Nations against all attempts to investigate the human rights violations of the CCP regime in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.
ICC notes that Nepal’s Constitution and laws in themselves violate international law on freedom of religion or belief. Although including generic references to religious liberty, reportedly introduced in its 2015 version after American pressures, Nepal’s Constitution maintains an article 26(3) that prohibits “convert[ing] a person of one religion to another religion.”
The prohibition is reflected in Nepalese laws. The General Code (Muluki Ain), Chapter 19, stipulates that “one attempt at conversion is punishable by three years imprisonment. Subsequent attempts at converting another are punishable by six years in prison and deportation if the accused is a foreign national.” A parallel provision in the National Penal Code of Nepal, Section 158, states that “no person shall convert anyone from one religion to another or make attempt to or abet such conversion.” This is a crime punished with “up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees.”
Notwithstanding these provisions, ICC reports that Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, is growing. Statistics are in effect political. Official data indicate that Christians in a country with a solid Hindu majority are 700,000, or 2.3% of the population, while Christian leaders believe the real figure is between two and three million.
The religious liberty situation suddenly deteriorated in 2023, ICC reports. “Late 2023 saw a concerning spate of physical attacks on Christian pastors and places of worship across Nepal. At least seven attacks occurred between August 20 and September 4, 2023, in locations across the country. Photos and videos reviewed by ICC revealed broken windows and other destruction around church properties.” A video shared on September on social media, not the first of this kind, showed “angry members of the community assaulting two men, identified as pastors, on the street and smearing their faces with a sticky black substance in an act described to ICC as a cultural sign of hatred and disrespect.” Boycotts of Christian business and protests against the Christian practice of burying the dead rather than cremating them, believed to make cemeteries “haunted,” were also reported.
While these are all signs of a worsening situation, the ICC also notes that there are Hindu leaders who promote a policy of tolerance towards minorities. “An interfaith coalition of civil society leaders gathered in June 2023 in Kathmandu to discuss the state of religious freedom in Nepal and collaborate on next steps.” Some 200 Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist representatives were in attendance, in addition to members of the Parliament and government officers. The conference showed that Nepal’s civil society is ahead of the government in promoting religious freedom and a peaceful coexistence between religions, although radicals exist on all sides.
International institutions should continue to tell Nepal that its Constitution and laws that prohibit converting Nepalese citizens from one religion to another should be amended. Freedom of religion is not freedom of worship only, and includes freedom of proselytization. It is not enough to answer that these laws are only rarely enforced. Experience shows that unjust, discriminatory statutes favor a climate of distrust of minorities and unavoidably result in hate crimes.