Nepal's first religious freedom case since the country's new constitution was implemented in 2015 is due to come to trial later this week.
Facing charges will be eight Christian counsellors arrested for distributing a pamphlet about Jesus in a Christian school while helping children through the trauma of last year’s earthquake.
Anything perceived as evangelizing is outlawed in the new constitution.
The seven men and one woman arrested June 9 were charged with trying to convert children to Christianity by distributing the pamphlet during a trauma seminar.
The counsellors were working for Teach Nepal. Barnabas Shrestha, chairman of Teach Nepal, says they were "invited by a pastor to do the counselling in the school". While it is a Christian school, not all pupils are Christians.
Shrestha denies the counsellors were trying to convert children. The police making the arrests "wanted our people to say yes, they have preached the Gospel ...which is not true".
The freedom of Nepal’s Christians is increasingly under threat.
Last week, according to a missionary in Nepal, the government announced to all leaders of Christian orphanages and boarding schools in Kathmandu that it would impose huge fines, close them down and confiscate possessions should they find just one Christian booklet in their institution.
The government also announced that praying with children or letting them attend a Bible club is prohibited.
Another Christian Nepali contact, who wants to remain anonymous, told World Watch Monitor that the Social Welfare Council, which approves foreign aid used to conduct programs, has stopped granting approval for Christian activities.
When Nepal decided to remain a secular, rather than become a Hindu, state it was a disappointment to Hindu nationalist groups.
In September 2015, hours after Nepal's Constituent Assembly rejected calls to revert to a Hindu state, two churches were bombed. Pamphlets promoting Hindu nationalism were found at each of the churches and nationalist group, Hindu Morcha Nepal, issued a press statement calling for Christian leaders to leave the country and for converts to Christianity to return to Hinduism.
The eight counsellors remain on bail awaiting trial, expected to be held on July 23.
Transcript of video:
Barnabas Shrestha, Chairman, Teach Nepal: These people have done nothing wrong. They didn’t hurt anyone, but still they were handcuffed. These people were invited by a pastor to do this trauma counselling for children into their school.
Text: They were charged with trying to convert children through a booklet during a seminar earthquake-related awareness seminar in Christian schools. Not all the students are Christian. The seminar was to help students deal with post-traumatic stress as a result of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015. The Christians were released on bail 8 days later, but are under trial.
C.B. Gahatraj, the Federation of National Christian Nepal: These eight people were accused of preaching their religion, but the allegation was wrong, we found (after visiting the area). The booklet that was said to be the tool for preaching was a book for children, which only carried the story of Jesus.
Bishop Narayan Sharma, Believers Church, Nepal: This is the booklet. The title of this booklet is the story of Jesus. It even does not say “Lord” Jesus. This book became - such a small, colourful comic book - such a crime.
Text: On June 9, police in Charikot, Dolakha District, arrested eight Christian representatives of the Christian group Teach Nepal. They were charged with trying to convert children by distributing the booklet during earthquake-related awareness seminars in Christian schools. The seminar was to help students deal with post-traumatic stress as a result of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015. The Christians were released on bail eight days later, but are under trial.
Shrestha: Our organization never tried to convert any children. Actually, normally, we do not give books to other people; since these two schools were run by Christians, we thought it will be okay to give the books to the children.
They [police] wanted our people to say yes they have preached the Gospel, they tried to force the children to become Christians, which is not true. And they were called one by one by a police officer. They [police] asked all kinds of questions. When our people denied it’s not true, and when they spoke that way, this man [police officer] got so angry. First he kicked, this man kicked [one of the Christians] very hard. And later, he started slapping on the face. But later, the other person [a police man] was called over there … this person didn’t use his hands or feet, I think he was suggested by others, and he started using … I think a polythene [plastic] pipe.
Text: This is Nepal’s first religious freedom case since a new constitution was implemented in September 2015. Christians attribute it to a constitutional clause which mandates the state to protect Hinduism, and see it as a build-up to coming repression.
Sharma: We thought with the secular state status, we have much freedom. But the incident and the attitude and the approach from the state, it shows they want to be more strict and they want to just keep the limitation on Christianity, and they don’t want it to grow further.
Lok Mani Dhakal, President, Janajagaran Party Nepal, a Christian party: We had thought that “dharma nirpekshta” means secularism, that the state will not favor any one religion. When the time came to pass the draft constitution in parliament, major parties built a consensus that secularism means the state should protect the traditional majority religion while granting religious freedom to the people. I was surprised looking at their description of secularism.
Sharma: A definition along with it also comes that if you propagate your religious thoughts, it will be a crime. If I’m in my church and speaking to my congregation, the police can arrest me and say that the teaching I was giving in the church … my intention was to convert people.
Text: The government sent a circular to non-governmental organizations in June, saying they can’t have ‘propagation of religion’ as a goal. Churches in Nepal are registered as NGOs, as no law provides for the formation of a religious group.
Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, Ex-Prime Minister of Nepal: No, no, that [arrest of Christians] was an isolated incident. It will be harmful to relate it with the constitutional provisions of the country. The country is fully secular. All religions have equal freedom, and the state makes no discrimination. The state is not mandated to protect the majority religion. The state is mandated to play a neutral role, to protect all religions, all religious beliefs. To cater to fears of certain quarters - that Nepal may be rapidly converted into another religion and that the traditional religions of Nepal, not only Hinduism … Hinduism, Buddhism and many other indigenous religions are practiced in Nepal … just to clear doubts and fears of some of the people that they will be swamped by other religions than the native religions of Nepal - some provisions were initiated. But it is not against secularism.
Dhakal: The way the constituent assembly has defined secularism, will the world believe in that definition? Just because you call an elephant a rabbit, will the rest of the world call it a rabbit or an elephant?
Courtesy: World Watch Monitor
Publication date: July 20, 2016