Nepali president Bidhya Devi Bhandari last week signed into law a bill criminalising religious conversion and the “hurting of religious sentiment”, as two parliamentarians warn religious freedom in the country is “teetering on the edge”.
Nepali MP Lokmani Dhakal and Canadian MP David Anderson expressed their concerns after an international delegation of parliamentarians had met with civil society organisations and government ministers in early October.
They said the delegation was “shocked to find that while Nepal’s constitution establishes the country as a secular state, there are certain constitutional provisions that infringe upon freedom of religion or belief”.
Civil society groups, human rights activists and MPs had appealed to the president not to sign the bill after it was passed in August.
Freedom of religion ‘further infringed’
Nepal’s Christian minority fears that the new law will be abused by those seeking to settle personal scores, with minorities especially at risk, as has been the case in neighbouring India in states with so-called “anti-conversion laws”, and in Pakistan through its blasphemy laws.
Last year, eight Nepali Christians were charged with “proselytising” for distributing a pamphlet about Jesus in a Christian school in Charikot, while helping children through the trauma of the 2015 earthquake. The charges were eventually dropped.
The two parliamentarians added “the [Nepali] government appears to have forgotten it is a signatory to international treaties that protect an individual’s right to have a religion to change that religion and even to have no religion at all. Nepal needs to be careful that it doesn’t develop a reputation as the type of country that on the one hand signs international treaties, but then does the polar opposite when drafting and implementing its own laws”.
On the same day Nepali president signed the controversial bill into law, the country was elected as one of the 15 new members of the UN Human Rights Council.
Nepal’s 2007 interim Constitution declared the country a secular state that maintained neutrality in religious affairs. That was further endorsed when the government approved the new Constitution in September 2015, despite strong protests from Hindu nationalists, who wanted a return to Hindu statehood and who continue to protest over the word “secular” – a word they say is inappropriately adopted from the West.
Hindus were dominant in Nepal’s most recent (2011) census at 81 per cent of a population of 26 million. Christians showed a rise of one per cent to 364,000 since the previous census in 2001. But observers felt the figures were wrong, as newly converted Christians may be afraid to state their religion and so remain registered as Hindus, while residents absent when the data was collected were automatically recorded as Hindu.