Fr. Joseph Varghese, Executive Director of Institute of Religious Freedom and Tolerance(IRFT) deplored the new draft of the constitution of Nepal which is providing no protection for religious minorities , especially the Christians in that country.
Nepal’s draft constitution, made available to the public on 30 June, reveals that religious freedoms for the country’s Christians may be seriously at risk if the document is passed in the Constituent Assembly, which could be as early as August. The proposed legislation does not allow Nepalese citizens to change religion and it punishes anyone who “[attempts] to change or convert someone from one religion to another”.
According to Article 31 of the draft constitution, clause 1 establishes that, “every person shall have freedom to follow, profess, practice and protect the religion as per his belief/according to his faith, and to remain free from any other religion”. This clause fails to provide freedom to convert from one religion to another.
Our contacts in Nepal told IRFT that this clause is interpreted to mean that the law allows individuals to leave their religion in order to become atheist, but not to leave their religion in order to convert to another religion. In addition to demanding that this clause be changed to allow citizens to change their religion, Nepalese Christians are advocating for politicians to include a provision that will allow citizens to “promote” their religion in this clause, an act that is denied in clause 3 of the draft article.
The second clause provides that, “every religious denomination shall have the right to run/operate and protect/preserve its religious places/sites, maintaining its independent existence”. This right, already in existence, pertains only to Hindus and Buddhists as Christian churches cannot legally register their land or property.
Perhaps most significantly of all, clause 3 of the same Article states that, “No one shall behave, act or undertake activities that breach public order or break public peace/peace in the community; and no one shall attempt to change or convert someone from one religion to another, or disturb/jeopardise the religion of others, and such acts/activities shall be punishable by law.”
The inclusion of this clause shows the patently negative perceptions towards religious rights in comparison with other kinds of freedoms. If passed, it could seriously curtail the freedoms of Christians to openly express their religion, particularly those involved in evangelistic ministry.
“Nepal’s law sees baptism as ‘converting others’ which is prohibited and made punishable in this sub-clause,” a Nepalese Christian leader told IRFT. “The church in Nepal will be in great trouble if this is not amended,” he said.
Concerned about the restrictions imposed in the proposed legislation, Nepalese church leaders have appealed to the coalition government to include the word “secular” in the preamble of the constitution, and to recognise Christianity as a religion.
The proposed legislation pertaining to religious freedoms directly contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of which Nepal is a signatory country. Article 18 of this international legislation provides freedom to change religion and to openly express one’s religion.
Nepalese leaders have been drafting a constitution for the country since 2008, when it was declared a secular republic, but it has only been since the serious earthquake stuck in April this year that politicians have finally reached a consensus on its outline. Now available to the public, some reports indicate this space for debate is set to close at the end of July.
Prior to 2008, Nepal was the only Hindu state in the world (India is a secular state). The right-wing Rashtriya Prajatantra Party is the fourth largest in the country and has made loud calls over the past year for the constitution to name Nepal as a Hindu nation once again. They are joined by many Hindus rallying for a Hindu state.
During the eighteenth century there was a great deal of religious freedom but the country was closed to Christianity towards the end of the century until 1950. Nepal has experienced rapid church growth since its borders were opened to foreign missionaries in the 1950s, even though they were not permitted to evangelise the local population. At that time, the Christian population was estimated to be very small, perhaps under a hundred Christians in total.