10/01/2015, 00.00
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For apostolic vicar, the new constitution threatens freedom of conscience

by Christopher Sharma
Section 26 of the new constitutional charter is the offending clause. Hindu and government leaders say it will affect only forced conversions. Yet, after last week’s triple church arson attack, Hindu extremists continue to threaten Christian missionaries. For apostolic vicar, so far no real threat has yet materialised. Hence, “We shall continue our work and meet the needs of the people."

Kathmandu (AsiaNews) – Nepal’s Christian leaders want parliament to repeal a provision in the country’s new constitution, the so-called anti-conversion clause, because it threatens religious freedom.

“We are happy that the country approved the first secular constitution in its history,” Apostolic Vicar Mgr Paul Simick told AsiaNews, “but Section 26 of the constitution is likely to limit the importance of secularism. There should be no restrictions on the freedom of conversion."

For the vicar, despite reassurances from Nepal’s secular leaders and the government that the right to convert freely is protected, the reality is that Hindu extremists are increasingly targeting the country’s Christians.

Indeed, the issue of religious freedom has grabbed the country’s attention in recent weeks, and led to heated disputes. The reason is the particular clause in the new constitution that says that "no person shall act  or  make  others  act  in  a  manner  which  is  contrary to  public  health, decency  and  morality,  or  behave  or  act  or  make  others  act  to  disturb public  law  and  order  situation,  or  convert  a  person  of  one  religion  to another religion, or disturb the religion of other people. Such an act shall be punishable by law.”

"The provision restricts the right to convert because it could be interpreted against all types of conversion, since it does not contain clear explanations” as to what constitutes forced conversion. Therefore, “It ought to be replaced by [the right to] freedom of conversion,” said Narayan Sharma, bishop in the Believers (Evangelical) Church.

Keshab Chaulangai, a leader in the World Hindu Federation, disagrees. “We should not worry with this constitutional provision because it bans only forced conversions. In a democratic system, everyone should be free to convert according to his will. Forced conversions should instead be punished. "

Minendra Rijal, an MP who is also government spokesman, agrees with the Hindu leader. "No Christian should fear restrictions on conversions, if they take place in full freedom. The provision is about forced conversions,” he said.

For Rijal, "There is no reason to be afraid. Everyone is protected under the law. In every society there are criminals, but the state will intervene against these individuals and no one has to fear violence”.

Still the country’s tiny Christian community (0.5 per cent in a population of 27 million) is weary.  Recently, several Christians have been targeted by the radical Hindu Morcha Nepal.

A few days ago, members of this extremist group (which set fire to three Protestant churches) threatened Christian missionaries working in Nepal, accusing the latter of exercising undue influence on the government, especially in connection with its decision against restoring the former Hindu absolute monarchy.

"Hindu Morcha Nepal is an illegal group and any illegal act will be punished,” the government spokesperson said. “Christian missionaries will not be forced to leave the country and the growing influence of foreign countries cannot be linked to the presence of the missionaries.”

Despite the situation, Christians will continue their mission of dialogue and the dissemination of the Gospel of charity to all, Christian Solidarity Worldwide is reported as saying.

Similarly, Mgr Simick noted that at no time were missionaries really threatened. Thus, "We shall continue our work and serve the needs of the people," he said.

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