Parliament approved the legislation, which will come into effect in August 2018. Anyone caught proselytising risks up to five years in prison. Those who hurts others’ religious sentiment can be fined and get up to two years of prison. Minority religious leaders slam the new provision as a restriction on freedom of belief.
Kathmandu (AsiaNews) – Nepal’s parliament approved a new criminal code punishing all religious conversions as well as all activities of evangelisation and proselytising.
The law applies to both Nepali citizens and foreigners (missionaries included) and will come into effect in August 2018.
Since most Nepalis are Hindus (more than 80 per cent of the population), minorities feel the legislation is designed to discourage their faith, especially Christianity.
AsiaNews spoke to some Christian leaders, Catholic included, all of whom are appalled by the parliament’s decision. Now they fear for their members and for religious freedom, which in theory is guaranteed by the country’s secular and democratic constitution adopted in 2015.
"We did not expect that the country would curtail international practices since Nepal is a member of several treaties and conventions on human and religious rights,” said Bishop Paul Simick, apostolic vicar to Nepal.
“We examine the real intentions of anyone of goodwill who asks a priest to convert. We never impose conversion,” the prelate explained.
“Now there is fear that charges will be levelled at priests, who do not ask anyone to convert but help people to conduct religious practices. There is the possibility that the right of priests to exercise their faith and duties will be curtailed. We shall have to see more developments in the future."
The new code stipulates that anyone caught "in flagrante delicto" proselytising for the purpose of converting a person "or undermine the religion, faith or belief of another caste, ethnic group or community" may be punished with detention of up to five years.
Moreover, anyone who "hurts the religious sentiment" of another confessional group faces up to two years in prison and a fine of 2,000 Nepalese rupees (US$ 20).
In an attempt to justify the law, Justice Minister Agni Kharel said that the law “is equally applicable to Hindus and Buddhists, among others. It is not only aimed at Christians.”
C B Gahatraj, president of Christian Federation Nepal, disagrees. "This code aims to control religious freedom and freedom of conversion,” he said.
“We strongly condemn such control in every form. Minorities were forced to follow traditional Hindu practices. But because of discrimination and oppression, people are interested in Christianity."
The Christian leader also slammed "political parties trying to control the growing interest of people into converting to Christianity."
"We do not force anyone or ask them to change religion,” he explained. They come to join us and we cannot deny them entry into the Christian community."
For Rev Bharat Giri, president of the AP Christian Party and pastor of the Believers Church, "This is a conspiracy against the increasing Christian population. But we will not stop our evangelical work, which is our priestly duty. God will defend us."
Nazrul Hussein, head of an inter-faith group, said that "the government cannot curtail freedom of choice and religion at its own discretion. We stand against this provision."
Conversely, for Dinesh Bhattarai, an advisor to the prime minister, “The new provision is designed to control forced conversions or those who violate religious sentiments. It is not aimed at any one faith or believer.”