07/20/2010, 00.00
NEPAL
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Christians in Nepal from marginalized to political actors

by Kalpit Parajuli
Protestant and Catholic leaders want more space in institutions in response to political and economic stalemate that has afflicted the country for months. Bishop Sharma in Kathmandu, says: "No leader has displayed a genuine interest in people. It's high time for the Christians in Nepal to engage actively in politics".

Kathmandu (AsiaNews) - Excluded from the political landscape for years, the Catholic and Protestant leaders of Nepal are calling for more space within the institutions to respond actively to the political and economic stalemate that has afflicted the country for months. In fact, after the resignation of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, on June 30 last, Nepal is still without a government. President Ram Baran Yadav has called on parliament to form a new government by July 21.

Bishop Anthony Sharma of Kathmandu, tells AsiaNews: "In the past I never noticed a great interest in Catholics for politics. But so far no leader has shown a real interest in the population. It is high time for Christians in Nepal to engage actively in politics, in order to make our voices and our concerns heard".

Bishop Sharma is the first resident bishop of the Catholic Church in Nepal. The Vatican appointed him bishop in 2007 after the proclamation of a secular state in 2006, the fall of the Hindu monarchy and over 10 years of civil war between Maoists and the army.

"Some time ago - he says – having a bible in your home was considered a crime, a grave sin. Now, thanks to the secular state this is no longer the case and Catholics are free to work".  "Those who became Christians – he continues - were ostracized by society. When I was baptized with the name Anthony, people looked at me suspiciously and asked 'Who is this Nepalese with a Christian name?'. To avoid problems I had to change my name to Amulya, which is a transliteration of Anthony in Nepali. At that time the government did not allow Catholics to work as missionaries”. Bishop Sharma said that after the end of the monarchy, people are less suspicious of Catholics.

Despite the ban on proselytizing and control by the authorities, since the time of the monarchy, the Catholic Church has been active in education. To date, it manages 31 schools, eight in Kathmandu alone. 65 priests, 17 male religious and more than 160 religious sisters work within them. Bishop Sharma says the priority in the country today is the lack access to hospitals and clinics for the poorest. "The Church - he says - has always been active in education, but today the health sector has the most problems. So for some years now we have been focusing on this area. "

The religious freedom experienced in recent years, however, is undermined by Hindu extremists who are fighting for the restoration of the monarchy and accuse Catholics of proselytism, intimidating people with threats and attacks. On 23 May 2009, the Nepal Defence Army, a group of Hindu fanatics detonated a bomb in the Cathedral of Kathmandu, killing two people.

"We're not scared of Hindu extremism - says the prelate, who in 2009 received several death threats from extremists - we will continue our service be it in a secular state or a new Hindu State". "We - he adds - never try to convert anyone with indoctrination in schools or with other methods. Our mission is to serve the needs of people, because conversion is the result of God's grace. "

According Nrayan Sharna, Protestant leader of the "Believers of the church," little or nothing has changed with the advent of the secular state. "The concept of a secular state - he says - has become a kind of religious instrument in the hands of political parties, because today we have the same problems that we had at the time of the monarchy." "The government - he continues - does not recognize the Christian churches as places of worship and we can not avoid registering them in government offices”. Sharna Nrayan says "Allowing Christmas holidays is not synonymous with secularism." "We - he adds - have no right to have a place to bury our dead." The leader points out that if "everything is decided through political consensus, we Christians want to be present in parliament and have closer contact with the government parties”.  

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