07/22/2015, 00.00
NEPAL
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As new constitution sparks protests, critics say it violates religious freedom

by Christopher Sharma
Under a provision in the draft constitution, anyone who carries out religious conversions could be punished. For Christian clergyman, this “goes against freedom itself”. In Terai district, copies of the proposed charter were burnt. Hundreds of people are arrested and scores hurt in violent clashes with police. Regional parties want the federal nature of the state recognised right away.

Kathmandu (AsiaNews) – Nepali Police arrested more than 100 people during protests across the country against new provisions in the draft constitution, which was finally presented in late June after years of disagreement and parliamentary tussles.

After a number of lawyers complained last week about discriminatory provisions vis-à-vis women, more controversies emerged concerning the future state’s federal structure, form of government, electoral rules as well as a provision that would punish “religious conversions”.

For two days, the members of the Constituent Assembly met ordinary Nepalis around the country to get their feedback. At the same time, Hindu parties expressed their opposition to the loss of the state’s Hindu character. For their part, Christian minorities spoke out against a provision that would punish people who convert.

"We have serious reservations about the law that stipulates that a public referendum would decide on a secular state,” said Kamal Thapa, president of Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPP-N), a centre-right liberal party.

If Nepal is not to be a Hindu country, secularism should entail religious freedom as the only way all will be free,” he explained. “Right now secularism has had a negative impact on the country."

For Rev CB Gahatraj, a Christian leader, "The article in the new Constitution punishing members of clergy who convert others must be removed. People should be free to choose their own beliefs."

"Freedom of religion means that everyone can convert and should not be punished for it. The proposed article goes against freedom itself, "he explained.

In the southern district of Terai, protesters burnt copies of the draft proposal, and disrupted meetings with representatives of the Constituent Assembly. Hundreds were arrested across the country and several dozen were injured in the police crackdown.

Regional parties are concerned about Nepal’s new federal structure and system of government. They want the state to be re-organised along federal lines right away before the constitution is promulgated. However, the latter remains a long process.

The Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee (PDCC) of the Constituent Assembly was tasked with writing the draft after vetting various suggestions.

Afterwards, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) will have to incorporate different views in another draft proposal, which will go to the Constituent Assembly for approval by a two-third majority.

Once that is done, the speaker of the Constituent Assembly will sign the new constitution, which will be presented to the country in an official ceremony led by the President of Nepal.

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