Christians and Muslims in Nepal are criticizing the draft version of a new constitution that bans religious conversion.
Spurred to action by the recent earthquake, Nepal’s government introduced the draft for public comment on June 30, Reuters reported. Religious minorities are concerned about its impact on their religious freedom and the government’s haste to finalize the document as soon as August.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) warned language about religious conversion in the draft version “fails to allow for choosing and changing one’s faith to be seen as a positive individual choice or as a matter of individual rights, as required and guaranteed by international treaties.”
The draft states that “any act which may be contrary to public health, public decency or morality or incitement to breach public peace or act to convert another person from one religion to another or any act or behavior to undermine or jeopardize the religion of each other is not allowed and such act shall be punishable by law.”
Martin Dore, CSW’s Nepal advocacy officer, said that would make it “illegal” to change religion, evangelize, or even explain one’s religion—all violations of Nepal’s international agreements.
“There is a purpose to stop all evangelism and talking about another faith in the words ‘incitement to breach public peace’ and the banning of ‘an act or behavior to undermine or jeopardize the religion of another,’” Dore said.
Nepal’s Hindu Rastriya Prajatantra Party lobbied for the inclusion of a conversion ban and has called for Nepal to become an officially Hindu state again. Hindu nationalists from India also seem to be influencing Nepal. CSW warned in June the vice chairman of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party met with Nepalese officials and urged them to institute a religious conversion ban.
Christianity has been growing in Nepal, with some high-profile converts from Hinduism. But in recent months there has been an uptick in accusations of forced conversions, according to CSW.
In 2011, Nepalese lawmakers attempted to make conversion to anything other than Hinduism or Buddhism illegal, according to Open Doors spokeswoman Emily Fuentes. But the legislation was not adopted.
Christians and Muslims are minorities in the former Hindu monarchy, which is why both groups want Nepal’s new constitution to keep the nation “secular.”
“We want secularism to be institutionalized in such a way that it is an unchangeable provision in the new constitution. We want the constitution to ensure religious rights and form a religious commission,” said C. B. Gahatraj, general secretary of the National Federation of Christians. Muslims also want permission to have their own religious courts.
Catholic officials in Nepal also called for the word “secular” to be inserted into the constitution and asked for Christianity to be officially recognized, according to Catholic News Service (CNS).
Christians in Nepal currently do not experience “significant” persecution and they are free to start churches, Dore said. But they don’t have legal rights to register their churches, nor can they acquire burial ground. Asia News reported that under the transitional constitution proselytizing was banned, but Nepali citizens could still “express” their faith even through missionary and charity work.