Nepal Churches Live Under Constant Threat

by | Aug 19, 2011 | Charisma Archive

ap_Nepal_church_bombing_photog-Gemunu_Amarasinghe
AP Images/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Defying
pouring rain and flooded streets, over two dozen people have gathered
faithfully at the Putalisadak Church in the heart of capital city
Kathmandu for the regular Thursday evening Bible study class,
bringing a smile of satisfaction on the face of Pastor Dev Kumar
Chetri.

The smile fades, however, when he talks about the
problems that Nepal’s second-oldest church has faced due to
government discrimination. Hundreds of other churches scattered
through the former Hindu kingdom have faced the same problem.

The
roots of the discrimination are imbedded in history. When four
missionaries from neighboring India’s Kerala state came to
Kathmandu Valley and founded the Bethshalom Putalisadak Church in
1953, preaching non-Hindu religions was a punishable offense. A
powerful Nepalese aristocrat, Col. Nara Raj Shumsher Jung Bahadur
Rana, who had secretly converted to Christianity in India, helped
build the Protestant church on land bought in his name and those of
two others.

“As per the old laws, churches were not
allowed to register as religious institutions,” said Chari Bahadur
Gahatraj, a Protestant pastor. “They functioned either as
Non-Governmental Organizations [NGOs] or personal properties. In
2006, when Parliament formally declared Nepal secular, we thought it
would change and churches would be recognized as religious
institutions.”

Five years later, however,
discrimination against Christians continues, Gahatraj said.

“We
have not even been mentioned in the new policies and programs of the
government proposed in Parliament this year,” he said.

The
Putalisadak church suffered a crisis when two of the men who were
co-owners of the land went to court to reclaim their share. The
church land had to be carved up to resolve the dispute. Then it
suffered another blow when the land it had bought with donations from
parishioners in Lele village in neighboring Lalitpur district to
build a cemetery 10 years ago could not be used due to fierce
resistance by locals.

“This is the saddest story,” Pastor
Chetri said. “Our church records indicate there are nearly 2
million Christians and about 4,000 churches in Nepal now. But most of
them don’t have a final resting place, as Christianity is still not
recognized in Nepal. It is as if we don’t exist.”

Operation
World’s
estimate
of the number of Christians in Nepal is lower than the church’s –
850,801 – but the latest edition estimates a higher number of
congregations, 9,780, than the Putalisadak church does.

The
third-oldest church in Nepal, Nepali Isahi Mandali, founded in 1957,
was also dragged to court by a resentful neighbor.

“When our
congregation started growing, in 2006 we started building a bigger
hall to accommodate them,” said Pastor Samuel Karthak. “But it
was opposed by a neighbor, who went to court. The dispute went up to
the Supreme Court before it was resolved. We would have felt so much
more secure if the churches had been recognized as religious
institutions. However, we are still regarded as second-class
citizens, and churches as places that exist only to convert people.
We still don’t have a voice.”

Stung by government apathy,
Christians this month joined forces with other excluded religious
communities like Buddhists and Muslims to begin a campaign seeking an
end to religious discrimination.

The Inter-Religious
Secularism Protection Movement (IRSPM) is asking the government to
allow churches, mosques, Buddhist monasteries and all other
institutions run by religious minorities to be registered as
religious institutions and be exempted from paying taxes.

“Despite
ratifying several international conventions and despite becoming
secular, Nepal has not recognized Buddhist monasteries, mosques,
churches, Sikh gurdwaras [worship
halls] and other religious institutions belonging to the religious
minorities as religious trusts,” said Ishu Jung Karki, IRSPM’s
acting coordinator. “Instead, it is nurturing laws that promote one
particular religion.”

The campaigners are demanding that the
government amend the draft of a new penal code that has triggered
widespread controversy and condemnation over the inclusion of clauses
that make conversions a punishable offense. Instead, they are asking
for a new Religion Act as well as Religion Commission to resolve
religious disputes.

Christians
make up 2.85 percent of the population of Nepal, a nation that is 16
percent Buddhist and 4.4 percent Muslim; Hindus are the majority at
75 percent, according to Operation
World
.

For
the first time, Christians and other religious minorities are seeking
proportional representation in all state organs such as the army,
judiciary and civil service on the basis of population. Though
Nepal’s new Parliament has 601 seats with the provision that the
prime minister should nominate representatives from unrepresented
communities, the stipulation has been virtually ignored. Most ignored
have been Christians.

The campaign has also expressed concern
at strident propaganda by a section of the Nepalese media against
religious minorities; these media representatives say the religious
minorities’ proposals aim to spread “envy, hatred and strife.”
The Christian community has been especially alarmed by a recent
article in a popular English daily, authored by the editor of a
financial newspaper, who alleged that all international NGOs that had
set up office in Nepal aimed to propagate Christianity.

Perhaps
the greatest concern by Christians is about the delay in promulgating
a new constitution that was to have bolstered the nascent republic’s
secular status. The major political parties failed to meet two
deadlines – one last year and one in May – to get the charter
ready. A third deadline looms on Aug. 31, and it is evident that not
even the first draft of the document will be ready.

The
inordinate delay has given militant Hindu groups time to push for the
restoration of Hinduism as the state religion and for a referendum to
decide if Nepal should remain secular.

“The
government should implement the new constitution by Aug. 31,” reads
an IRSPM press statement. “That is the mandate of the people as
well as the pro-democracy movement.”

The
pro-democracy movement ended Hindu King Gyanendra Shah’s
army-backed rule and brought the political parties to power.

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