Nepal Struggles with Christian Conversions

by Jayant Chowdhury - Dec 28, 2014 06:02 PM +05:30 IST
Nepal Struggles with Christian Conversions

Rampant proselytizing by Christian missionaries flush with Western funds is inflaming passions and could lead to a dangerous socio-religious situation in the Himalayan republic.

Nothing short of a miracle is happening in Nepal. Many people in vast swathes of this erstwhile Hindu kingdom, especially its northern mountainous districts and the southern foothills, have suddenly started finding a ‘new meaning’ in life. And, as a consequence, abandoning their faiths to become Christians.

That their numbers are not small is borne out by statistics: within a period of four years since 2011 when the last census was conducted, more than 2.5 lakh people have converted to Christianity. This number may look small, but is significant enough to change the demography and cause social tensions in a country of about 31 million people (2014 estimates).

The issue of religious conversions has assumed serious and contentious proportions in this nation whose political leaders have been grappling, for six years now, with the onerous task of drafting a new constitution since monarchy was abolished in 2006. Nepal became a ‘secular’ state under an interim constitution that was promulgated in January 2007, and this sparked a flurry of evangelical activities by proselytizing priests.

Nepal Struggles with Christian Conversions

This has, naturally, caused deep social divides and invited a backlash from Hindus, Buddhists and practitioners of the traditional Kiranta faith (a blend of animism, Shaivite Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism) of Nepal. Even the interim constitution makes religious conversion an offence punishable by a stiff fine and jail term of up to five years, although few have been prosecuted under this law.

The prevailing social tension in Nepal over religious conversions has been compounded by Christian religious leaders and groups demanding that the right to convert from one religion or faith to another be guaranteed under the new constitution that is currently being framed by the second constituent assembly at present. They want two penal codes (sections 160.1 and 160.2) in the proposed constitution to be discarded—160.1 says “no person has the right to convert or incite a citizen to conversion to religions other than their own”, and 160.2 prescribes punishment for “behaviour that may offend the beliefs or traditions of the Hindu caste or religious community”.

Into this raging controversy over conversions has waded in the British ambassador to Nepal, Andrew Sparks. In an op-ed article in a recent issue of Republica, a popular English daily published from Kathmandu, Sparks appealed to members of the constituent assembly to ensure that the “right to change one’s religion is protected” under the new constitution.

His appeal created a storm with many protesting what they termed was “blatant interference” in Nepal’s internal affairs. Kamal Thapa, chairman of the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which wants Nepal’s status as a Hindu kingdom restored, argues that the British envoy’s only concern was to ensure that proselytizing Christian missionaries faced no hurdles in their activities and would have a field day converting Nepal’s poor people using blatant blandishments. “Or else why should he be concerned about this? His only objective is to ensure that Christian missionaries from Europe and the West are free to proselytize in Nepal,” asserts Thapa.  

Thapa’s charges, and contentions, have found wide resonance in Nepal in recent days. Many prominent citizens, including editors of newspapers, senior journalists, social activists, prominent professionals, bureaucrats and politicians that this writer met during his Nepal visit appeared to be veering round to the view that making the country a secular republic was a hasty step.

No one was ever consulted and the decision (to make Nepal a secular country) was thrust upon us by the Maoists. That was wrong,” said a prominent and widely-respected author. They point out that even though last constitution of 1990 proclaimed Nepal to be a ‘Hindu rashtra’, Hinduism was not the state religion and people belonging to other religions were never persecuted. Religious tolerance was the norm. “Hinduism, by its very nature, is a secular, tolerant and all-encompassing religion. So there was no need to make Nepal a secular country,” contended Suraj Shrestha, prominent medical practitioner.

Christian religious leaders say that while forcible conversion is wrong and can be penalized, there ought to be no bar or restriction on people converting of their own free will. But Hindu, Buddhist and Kiranta religious leaders contend that financial and other material enticements are used to lure poor people from other religions to convert to Christianity. And conversions through enticements and allurements are also illegal and, hence, punishable. Hindu groups have collected and collated voluminous evidence to prove that financial and material rewards, including doles, free education and jobs are promised and given to those who convert to Christianity. This is quite natural, for evangelical Christian groups are flush with western funds and find easy prey among the multitudes of poor in Nepal.

Nepal’s oldest temple site in the north-eastern Kathmandu Valley
Nepal’s oldest temple site in the north-eastern Kathmandu Valley

A journey through Nuwakot, Dhading, Gorkha, Lamjung, Kaski, Myagdi, Rukum and Chitwan districts that this writer undertook recently would serve as an eye-opener to the widespread proselytization in Nepal. New churches dot the countryside and there is a distinct difference between those who have fallen prey to the Church’s blandishments and those who have resisted the lure of the lucre.

The ones who have succumbed stay in better houses, are better dressed and look healthier, their children go to schools, including boarding schools, run by Christian missionaries, and many of them have secured jobs with western donor agencies. Their neighbours who have hung onto their traditional faiths eke out a hand-to-mouth existence. Church bodies vehemently deny that their missionaries lure poor people. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal, says that no one is being enticed to convert to Christianity. “Hindus are converting to Christianity because they feel oppressed by Hinduism’s rigid caste system and burdened by its expensive ritualism,” he contends. But statements such as these only serve to hurt the sentiments of Nepal’s Hindus, who count for more than 80% of the country’s population, and inflame passions.

Hindu, Buddhist and Kiranta groups argue that if the Christian groups’ only concern, as they profess, is to ameliorate the sufferings of the poor in Nepal and provide education, healthcare and livelihood training to them, then why are many beneficiaries of such outreach programmes converting to Christianity? Why is it necessary to preach the Gospel to the poor while serving them? Why is it necessary to carry the Bible in one hand while extending largesse with the other?

Social work and evangelization go hand in hand and the actual intent of Church groups is to lure the poor with financial and material benefits to Christianity, contend many in Nepal. A recent statement by Father K.B. Silas Bogati, the executive director of the Nepal chapter of Caritas, a global Catholic aid organization, gives the lie to the Churches’ claims of innocence: “We say to the Nepalese: ‘Christ loves you’. As Christ loved the poor and the people in need, so does the Church in Nepal. It is our way to evangelize. Everyone knows we are Christians and in whose name we do our service, and many want to know our faith.”

Given this, the fear among the country’s majority Hindus, Buddhists and Kirantas about Nepal’s demography undergoing rapid change is real. What also hurts them is the portrayal of their faiths as “regressive” and “pagan” by evangelical Church groups. No wonder, then, that many in Nepal are clamouring for an end to the proselytizing activities of Christian missionaries.

Jayant Chowdhury is an avid observer of and commentator on politics and society in Bengal and eastern, including north-eastern, India.
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