Nepalese hail vote on secular status

Katmandu, Nepal - Nepal Christian, Buddhist and Muslim leaders in Nepal on Friday hailed the Parliament's move to change the Hindu nation into a secular state.

A resolution passed by Parliament on Thursday included a clause that said Nepal would no longer be formally known as a Hindu country. More than 85 percent of Nepal's 27 million people are Hindus.

"We welcome the government decision. We have been fighting for secular and religious freedom in Nepal for a long time," said K.B. Rokaya of the Regional Council of Churches in Nepal.

Rokaya said the government should form a regulatory body "so that all sort of religious activities can be practiced freely and without any intimidation."

The Nepalese Constitution, written in 1990, declared the Himalayan country a Hindu kingdom.

Cheering Nepalese held rallies in several cities and towns Friday to celebrate Parliament's vote to dramatically cut King Gyanendra's powers and turn him into a figurehead leader.

Communist rebels who control much of the countryside also welcomed the resolution - passed unanimously by Parliament - but said the king's ceremonial role should also be eliminated.

The sweeping resolution called for King Gyanendra to be stripped of his command over the army, his legal immunity, and freedom from paying taxes. It also said the king should lose his official position as head of the Himalayan country, changing traditional references to "His Majesty's government" to simply the "Nepal government."

To be enacted, the resolution still must be voted on as a series of laws, officials said. That was expected in the next few days.

The measure's passage "has begun the process," the deputy prime minister, Khadga Prasad Oli, said Thursday. "The government will work with Parliament to execute the resolution and laws will be drafted to implement the resolution."

Top political leaders addressed a major rally in the capital, Katmandu, on Friday, which the government declared a public holiday to celebrate the passage of the resolution. All government offices and schools were closed for the day, the Home Ministry said in a notice.

The seven parties in the governing alliance called the resolution a historic achievement that had eliminated all of the king's powers.

"This ends the remains of the royal regime and establishes the king as only a figurehead," said Narayanman Bijuchche of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party.

The Communist rebels' leader, Prachanda, said he welcomed the resolution, but said it failed to address all the needs of the people.

"We want to make it clear that this declaration has not been able to fully address the needs and aspirations of Nepal and the Nepali people," the rebel leader, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, said in a statement.

He said a continuing ceremonial role for the king "is against the aspiration of the people to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic."

The rebels want to completely abolish the monarchy, but have said they will leave the decision to a special assembly which is to write a new constitution.

The vote in Parliament was the most significant move it has made since the new government assumed power last month.