Wednesday, August 5, 2015

RLPB 321. Nepal's Constitution: religious liberty at risk

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 321 | Wed 05 Aug 2015

By Elizabeth Kendal

BACKGROUND: Until quite recently Nepal was the world's only Hindu kingdom. Things changed in February 2005 when King Gyanendra seized absolute power in a bloodless coup, sending anti-monarchy sentiment soaring. By November 2005 Nepal's previously disparate opposition parties had united in a 'Seven Party Alliance' (SPA) to oppose totalitarian royal rule. By April 2006 Kathmandu was paralysed, crippled by mass demonstrations. King Gyanendra was forced to step down. The Maoists then declared a ceasefire and on 18 May 2006 Nepal's new SPA parliament publicly declared that Nepal would no longer be a Hindu kingdom but a secular democratic republic. In historic polls on 10 April 2008 Nepalis elected a Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the new secular constitution, something Hindu nationalists vehemently opposed. In May 2012 the Assembly dissolved after failing to meet its fourth and final deadline for a new constitution. What followed was years of procrastination and Hindu nationalist agitation. Propelled into action by the devastating April 2015 earthquake, Nepal's parliament agreed on 8 June to move forward on the constitution. [For background see Religious Liberty Monitoring, label: Nepal]

CONSTITUTION 2015: Nepalese hopes that a new constitution will be finalised by mid-August 2015 are under a cloud as protesters continue to express their displeasure over the draft. The main concern for Christians is the loss of religious liberty. Though Article 31 enshrines the right to profess and practise one's own religion, it also enshrines anti-conversion legislation. Clause 3 of Article 31 reads: 'In exercising the right entrusted by this article, any act which may be contrary to public health, public decency or morality or incitement to breach public peace or act to convert another person from one religion to another or any act or behaviour to undermine or jeopardise the religion of each other is not allowed and such act shall be punishable by law.' Nepal advocacy officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Martin Dore, rightly observes, 'That would make it "illegal" to change religion, evangelise, or even explain one's religion.' Lokmani Dhakal, one of the four Christians in Nepal's 601-member Constituent Assembly, is left asking, 'Without freedom to speak about one's faith, what is the meaning of religious freedom?'

Christians are also concerned that, after public consultations, the term 'secular' has been dropped.  As  C.B. Gahatraj, General Secretary of the National Federation of Christians, explains, Nepalese Christians want to see secularism institutionalised in the constitution, with Christianity recognised to protect Nepali Christians from discrimination and persecution. However, it now seems likely that Nepal will be declared a Hindu state with 'religious freedom' -- but not the religious freedom described in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not only is conversion being portrayed as an abuse or 'misuse' of religious freedom, it seems that Hindu nationalists have convinced Nepalis that secularism would result in mass conversions, to the detriment of Nepali culture. As the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Rt Rev Dr Angus Morrison, observes, 'The growing threat to religious freedom around the world is, I believe, one of the most pressing issues of our time.' His appeal 'on behalf of our partners and friends in Nepal' is that this matter be raised with the government of Nepal, to 'help ensure that, in its proper sense, freedom of religion for all people in Nepal is enshrined in the country's new constitution'.

In an excellent opinion piece entitled 'Religious Tolerance' (Kathmandu Post, 29 July 2015), Nepalese Christian David Kainee goes right to the heart of the matter. 'The current debate over secularism is taking place partly due to the resurgence of some political leaders who are exploiting the religious sentiments of the people to purge their tainted images in a bid to bounce back into politics. These leaders are inciting hatred against religious minorities which is polluting the environment of religious tolerance for which Nepal is known all over the world. The concept of secularism holds that the government or other entities should exist separately from religion and religious beliefs. But it is sad to say that secularism has been wrongly interpreted in Nepal. If the constitution of Nepal enshrines secularism, it does not mean that every Hindu will be converted into Christians or Muslims -- it is only a movement towards the separation of religion and government. Secularism will not weaken nationalism. ... For peace and prosperity, we need to defeat the forces of religious extremism in the country, otherwise Nepal is sure to take the path of communal politics like in the Gulf and Middle Eastern countries where hundreds of people are being killed in religious violence every day. Let's close the chapter of giving a political colour to religion which is polarising Nepali society -- instead plant the seed of tolerance and unity which is my fervent prayer for our country Nepal.'

Let us join our Nepali brothers and sisters in fervent prayer for their country.

Gospel for Asia


* intervene in Nepal, to preserve religious liberty; may our great redeeming God redeem this divisive debate on secularism and religious freedom and use it to open eyes, hearts and minds to the dangers posed by communalism, the risks inherent in rolling back liberty and the blessings to be gained from freedom.

* grant influential Nepalese Christians divine wisdom and authority as they seek to influence the debate, advocate for religious freedom and counter Hindu nationalist propaganda.

* grant Nepalese Christians, evangelists, church workers and church leaders divine wisdom as they navigate the path ahead; may God continue to build his Church in Nepal.

'Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it will be opened to you.' (Matthew 7:7 ESV)


Once the world's only Hindu kingdom, Nepal was declared a secular, democratic republic in May 2006. However, attempts to produce a secular constitution have so far failed and a new constitution  finalised by mid-August 2015 seems unlikely as Nepalis protest their displeasure about the draft. Christians are deeply concerned that the draft, though it affirms the right to profess and practise one's own religion, criminalises evangelism and conversion. Hindu nationalists have run a highly successful propaganda campaign convincing Nepalis that 'secularism' will lead to mass conversions to the detriment of Nepalese culture. Now ambitious politicians are exploiting the rise in Hindu zeal, promoting and protecting Hinduism in pursuit of political gain. This is a pivotal time for Nepal. Please pray for Nepal and its Church.


Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today
(Deror Books, Dec 2012).