A new constitution in Nepal that may limit an individual’s rights to convert others from one religion to another has concerned many leaders in the nation’s Christian community.
The Nepalese government, which has been attempting to reform what was once the world’s only Hindu kingdom into a secular democracy since the country’s civil war ended in 2006, has drafted a new constitution that is scheduled to be put into effect by the end of May 2011. A provision under the draft’s “freedom of religion” section prohibits anyone from attempting to convert others to another religion — legislation that will largely affect Nepal’s Christian population, which is said to be the most active in conversion attempts. Although the law will not penalize individuals who change religions, it will punish anyone who encourages someone to convert.
A significant part of the controversy is not so much the wording of the legislation as the potential for misuse of the law, since many religious extremists in Nepal are known to harass, intimidate, or even physically abuse Christians who attempt to convert Hindus. In November 2010, a Gospel for Asia-supported missionary was severely beaten by six men who accused him of blasphemy against their Hindu gods and for attempting to convert their family members.
But despite the risk for greater persecution, some Christian leaders see the new legislation as an opportunity for the government to finally recognize Christianity as a legal religion. Without such legal status, Nepalese Christians have been unable to build churches, buy property, or even conduct weddings or funerals.
Although disagreements between political parties have made it unclear whether the new constitution will be officially enforced by the May deadline, many Christians in Nepal are praying that the church will finally be granted the same rights as other religious groups.
While 80 percent of Nepal’s 30 million citizens are Hindu, Christians are the most significant religious minority in Nepal, comprising approximately .5 percent of the population. Christian Freedom International (CFI), a Michigan-based humanitarian organization that assists persecuted Christians around the world, has helped to spread the Gospel in Nepal by covertly distributing Bibles and other Christian literature among villagers. The organization has also supplied food and medicine to Christians in Nepal’s underground house churches.