Living as a minority.

Nepal’s new Constitution, adopted on 20th September 2015 established it as a secular state and provided freedom to profess and practice one’s own religion. The Constitution prohibited changing one’s religion and so any activities considered to be encouraging a person to convert from one religion to another can be deemed illegal. Religious behaviour disturbing public law and order and behaviour contrary to public health, decency and morality was banned. Minority religious leaders and human rights’ lawyers have expressed concern that the ban could make religious minorities vulnerable to persecution for preaching or public displays of faith[1].

Until 2006, Nepal was the world’s only official Hindu nation[2]. The population is estimated to be 31 million and, according to the 2011 census, Hindus constitute 81.3%, Buddhists 9%, Muslims (the majority of whom are Sunni) 4.4%, and Christians (the majority of whom are Protestant) 1.4%.

Living and working in Kathmandu since January 2014, I have found being part of a small religious minority group an interesting and challenging experience. Growing up and living in Northern Ireland where religious freedom is taken for granted did not prepare me well to live in a country where Christians are viewed with suspicion. Christians are often outcast from their Hindu family, and eldest sons in particular face great opposition, as it is the duty of the eldest son to perform Hindu funeral rites for his parents. Thus, if he converts to Christianity it seems like an act of betrayal. Some of my Christian colleagues have shared the pain of ongoing separation and hostility from their family members and the difficulties they face as a result.  In addition to personal opposition, there has been growing government opposition to Christianity. The punishments for religious conversion and associated activities stipulated by the law are: six years’ imprisonment for “causing another person to convert” or for propagating any religion in a manner undermining another religion and three years’ imprisonment for attempts to perform such acts. Christian groups have interpreted this as a ban on proselytizing, which was borne out in 2016 when seven Christians were arrested and imprisoned for two weeks for handing out biblical literature, although the court case was eventually dropped.

Despite it becoming increasingly more difficult to be a Christian in Nepal Christianity continues to grow strongly, partly because the law against proselytizing is difficult to enforce and because many Nepali Christians are enthusiastic in their efforts to evangelize.  Another reason for this growth is that Christians have stepped into areas of need that neither the government nor the Hindu majority will serve. The devastating earthquakes in 2015 strengthened the growth of the Christian church. Where government officials often failed to help poor villagers devastated by earthquake damage, Christian groups distributed aid to entire villages, not just to Christians, which was in stark contrast to some political leaders who only gave emergency aid to their own supporters. In a country dominated by Hindu caste social structures, this Biblical statement takes on a deeper meaning: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [3]. This is a liberating message, especially to those from lower castes who are severely socially disadvantaged in Nepal. Whether we are working for peace in Nepal or in Northern Ireland, we can only be peacemakers if we believe that everyone, regardless of culture, religion or ethnicity, is equally valuable in God’s eyes.[4]  How easy it is to ignore this simple yet sacred truth.

Religious freedom and respect for religious diversity are essential elements of a peaceful society and a successful democracy. [5] Real peace implies more than polite acceptance of the other. A peaceful society is only possible when we learn how to move from our cultural and/or religious groups to cross boundaries and meet those different from us.  Historically in Nepal, Hindus and Buddhists have lived peacefully for centuries but are struggling to achieve the same harmony with newer Muslim and Christian minorities that appear more challenging to Nepali traditions.  Only time will tell if minority religious groups in Nepal can live together and practice their religion peacefully.   As in Northern Ireland the opportunity and challenge is to work towards a society rooted on a foundation of mutual respect and trust.

Laura Coulter.

Laura Coulter currently works as a Peace-building Advisor to United Mission to Nepal.

 

[1]NEPAL 2015 INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT, United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

[2]Freedom of religion in Nepal, taken from Wikipedia

[3] Galatians 3:28, NSV

[4] Finding Peace, Jean Vanier, 2003

[5] Global Covenant of Religions. Sept 2015

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One Response to Living as a minority.

  1. Puran Agrawal says:

    Response to “Living as a minority”
    I thank Laura Coulter for bringing to our notice a backward anti-Christian provision in Nepal’s recent Constitution adopted on the 20th September 2015.It is a backward move in the sense that until 1990 Nepal had a long-standing law which prohibited conversion from one religion to another. First Christian missionaries were allowed in Nepal in the early 1950s on the condition that they were there as technical professionals such as doctors, engineers, health workers etc. and that they would not engage openly in the public in prosetylising of the Christian Gospel. This handicap was overcome by most missionaries and practising Nepali Christians, who went to Nepal from the Darjeling district of north-east India, by inviting their Nepali friends to their homes and then talking about the Gospel of Christ in the privacy of their homes.
    Tthe legal prohibition was against being instrumental in conversion and this handicap was in many cases overcome by sending those wanting to be converted to India. The newly converted Christians then come back to Nepal and practice their faith without any hindrance, though many brave Christian missionaries and Nepali Christians took the public stand and baptised many who wanted to be Christians and as result paid the legal penalty of imprisonment.
    Following the movement for democracy (Jan Andolan!) in 1990 the laws changed and the restriction on public preaching of the Gospel and penalty for converting the non-Christian Nepalis were removed. When the new Constituent Assembly was elected In 2008, Nepali Christians had not imagined in their wildest dreams that Nepal will adopt a consitution which will nulify the equal status granted to all religions in 1990. It is true that the legal prohibition re conversion applies to all religions— a Hindu converting to Islam as much as a Muslim converting to Buddhism—its practical effect is to stop a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Muslim converting to Christianity, as Hinduism and Buddhism are not presletysing faiths and Muslims in Nepal have accepted for centuries that they can merely practice their faith and not engage in any attempt to convert followers of other faiths to Islam.
    Laura Coulter is right in pointing out that Christianity in Nepal will continue to grow despite this constitutional handicap partly because it will prove very difficult to enforce the law—Christians can still preach the Christian message in the privacy of their homes and sent those wanting to be converted across the boarder in India—and partly because they now constitute a significant proportion of the Nepali population and are to be found in all walks of life, especially in professions such as medicine, law, education, and civil service. Further, today’s Nepal is a secular state and the Consitution guarantees the freedom to hold and pursue religious beliefs of one’s choice, It is difficult to imagine how anyone can be legally persecuted and punished simply because he/she decides freely to change his/her religious beliefs.
    Another reason why Christianity will keep flourishing in Nepal is that Christian message of unity and equality of individuals, as Laura Coulter rightly points out, is increasingly becoming attractive not only to “lower castes” but also to the educated younger generation who readily espouse left-wing political outlook and are more open to the Christain message of individual equality and freedom rather than the rigid caste-based religious outlook of Hinduism. Finally, given that even during the “dark days” when Hinduism was the state religion in Nepal, there were very few persecutions against those who were converted to Christianity, it is unlikely that that situation will change substantially now that Nepal is a secular state and the Consitution gurantees the equal right to pursue religious beliefs of one’s choice. This is, however, is not deny that some in the remote parts of the country will face persecutions, as in the past, for a variety of political, legal and social reasons.
    All Christians in Nepal and their friends overseas can do now, therefore, is to continue to pray to God’s for his help and guidance and to contnue to work within the legal framework to remove the legal restrictions and penalties against procclaiming the message of Christ. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
    Puran Agrawal

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