Baptist and Christian leaders have urged Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to reconsider language in Nepal’s proposed constitution that would make evangelism illegal.
Section 31(3) of the proposed constitution reads: “No one shall behave, act or undertake activities that breach public order or break public peace/peace in the community; and no one shall attempt to change or convert someone from one religion to another, or disturb/jeopardize the religion of others, and such acts/activities shall be punishable by law.”
A letter written by Elijah Brown, chief of staff at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, and signed by 353 global Christians, many of whom are Baptists, from 26 U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia) and 12 countries, called this section “distressing” and urged Nepal’s Constituent Assembly to reconsider the language.
The letter was sent to Nepal’s Embassy in the U.S., headed by Arjun Kumar Karki, to whom the initial draft of the letter was addressed.
World Watch Monitor (WWM), a Christian organization focused on religious persecution, further explained, “Attempting to convert someone to another religion is already prohibited in Nepal, but the proposed amendments would mean that anything perceived as ‘evangelistic’ could be punishable by law.”
WWM added, “On paper, the proposed amendments read the same for all religions, but no specification is given for what constitutes an ‘act to convert’ and, in a country where 80 percent of the population is Hindu, the hammer is likely to fall hardest on minorities, including Christians, who comprise between 1.5 and 3 percent of the population.”
Concerns have been expressed within Nepal as well.
Saral Shrestha, an interfaith group leader in the nation, raised similar concerns in an op-ed appearing in the Kathmandu Post.
“Some blindly argue that the draft constitution gives freedom of religion and that there is nothing to fear, but how can this be when Article 31(3) explicitly criminalizes any ‘act to convert another person from one religion to another’?” the author noted.
Shrestha continued, “If the lawmakers do not change this provision, Nepal could sadly just become one of those countries that merely profess to have freedom of religion, when in reality, its laws indicate otherwise.”
Nepal has been governed by a temporary constitution since 2006 when it began to transition from a Hindu monarchy to a democratic form of government following a decade of conflict between the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Shah Dynasty (Hindu monarchy).
Efforts to formulate a constitution have been hindered by myriad disagreements, with strikes arising in recent days over the proposed division of the nation into six federal states – a key sticking point. A brief history of the process is available here.
A breakthrough in negotiations came in June 2015 in the wake of a devastating earthquake on April 25, followed by a second earthquake on May 12.
These tragedies temporarily unified the nation and “helped bring a halt to the seemingly endless bickering between rival parties,” according to a Channel News Asia report.
Numerous Christian organizations, including Baptists, responded by providing humanitarian aid.
BMS World Mission, for example, raised more than $770,000 to aid Nepal’s earthquake victims.
Despite these humanitarian initiatives, a fear of non-Hindu religions in Nepal has led to a push for restrictions on religious freedom, leaving Christians wondering how they will be treated under the new constitution.
Christian Today reported that “an overwhelming public demand” has led Nepali politicians “to use the term ‘Hindu state’ instead of ‘secular’ in the new constitution.”
The push for this change is due to fears that “the use of the word ‘secular’ in the Himalayan nation’s draft constitution would spur efforts by other religious groups to convert Hindus,” according to Reuters.
“Hindu political groups worry over evangelizing efforts by Christians in a country where Hindus number more than 81 percent of a population of 28 million, with Buddhists making up 9 percent, Muslims 4.3 percent and Christians under 2 percent,” Reuters revealed.
After referencing the spring earthquakes, Brown commented, “Now, another very real threat looms over this beleaguered country, as millions of Nepali face the real possibility of seeing their religious freedom stripped away and denied.”
A leader in the Nepalese Congress confirmed to Al-Jazeera that “secular” would not appear in the constitution, but stressed, “People will be free to choose their religion. There will be no state interference in the matter of religion.”
Yet, as Brown emphasized in his letter, Section 31(3) of the constitution “nullifies and criminalizes the freedom to share, change and choose one’s religion,” which denies “the fundamental rights of man necessary for a just society and the flourishing of its citizens.”
Brown told EthicsDaily.com that he has been contacted directly by several Baptists in the U.S. and Canada voicing support for the letter.
He also praised the Baptist Relief and Development (BReaD) Network – an informal network of global Baptists agencies – for their assistance in the initiative.
“It has been encouraging to see individuals, churches, associations and state and national networks all help to promote this effort,” he said, adding, “Of course, the real hope is that this will help produce meaningful change for those living in Nepal.”