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Draft law threatens freedom of religion and expression in Nepal

Country/Region: Nepal, South and East Asia

Christian leaders fear the witness of the Church in Nepal will be seriously threatened by proposed new legislation that would further restrict evangelism and undermine freedom of religion and expression in the country.

Kathmandu-4X3.jpg
The Singha Durbar in Kathmandu is the official seat of government in Nepal

A new civil code is being drawn up that includes five clauses regarding religious behaviour. The most concerning of these for Christians is clause 160, which would make it illegal to convert someone or abet them to change their religion “by offering inducements or without inducement”, and preaching “a different religion or faith with any other intent”. Offenders could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 Nepalese rupees.

A Nepalese Christian leader said:

This clause is of serious concern. This law seems to go further than Nepal’s Interim Constitution of 2007, by making it illegal to act or behave in any way which might lead someone to change their religion, even without offering inducements. This could include a number of actions that most Christians would see as being integral to the exercise of their faith, as it might result in another person wishing to become a Christian.

Nepalese Christians are also concerned about clauses 158 and 159, which would respectively ban “undermining any religious feeling” and “putting an obstacle in the way of religious rituals which have been in existence since time immemorial”. They fear the former could be used to stifle the free expression of religion as well as the scrutiny or criticism of discriminatory practices, such as the caste system or inequitable treatment of women, that are embedded in religious belief. There is concern that the latter clause could be used to protect the traditional religions of Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism, with “newer” religions to the country, including Christianity, being perceived as a threat.

Return to the old order?

For nearly two centuries before 1950 no Christians were officially allowed to live in Nepal. Although the ban was then lifted, in 1960 the country was declared a Hindu kingdom, and for the next 30 years many Christians were imprisoned for converting from Hinduism or influencing others to do so. Foreign missionaries accused of “preaching” were deported.

A secular state was established in 2006, and an interim constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and expression to all groups; every citizen has the right to “profess, practise and preserve” their religion, and people are allowed to convert from one faith to another, although persuading others to change their faith is forbidden. Christians suspected of encouraging conversion can be reported to the authorities and, if found guilty, may be fined or imprisoned.

But the church has enjoyed a considerable measure of freedom and growth; official figures suggest there are now more than half a million Christians, and some church leaders put the figure much higher, though it remains a very small proportion (2-3%) of the population.

Increasing Hindu extremism is, however, threatening the place of Christianity in the country; the Nepal Defence Army (NDA) and other groups want to turn it back into a Hindu nation. Some Nepalese Christians fear Hindu extremists are gearing up for wide-ranging persecution, which the proposed legislation may serve to advance. The additional restrictions certainly appear to be a retrograde step more in keeping with the old order than the provisions made for religious freedom by the interim constitution.

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