Nepalese lawmakers stage a protest as other lawmakers vote a bill in Kathmandu to amend the country's new constitution. (Photo by AFP)
Much fanfare was made when Nepal released its new constitution in September. I was one of the many who celebrated on the streets of Kathmandu, hoping it was part of a prosperous peaceful future for our nation.
But all was not what it appeared to be.
There are controversial elements within the constitution, most notably how it stifles religious freedom by making it illegal for anyone to promote or express their religion in a way that could result in someone changing their faith.
And this part includes hefty punishments.
The contentious bill — yet to be made law — proposes five years of imprisonment and a penalty of 50,000 rupees for anyone found guilty of converting a person from one religion to another.
Little wonder that the United States expressed its concerns about such provisions last November.
If the bill is passed, it's feared that it will result in a situation worse than Pakistan's blasphemy law — a type of bill that can be misinterpreted and misused by anyone wanting to make a false accusation against anyone else.
More locally, this bill would mean Nepal would revert to a worse state of affairs than the previous Panchayat System (1960-1990), which resulted in minority religious groups being persecuted by the state.
The conversion laws will especially have ramifications on people such as the Dalits or minority ethnic groups who are discriminated against in the Hindu caste system and who seek to escape discrimination by changing their religion. Such a bill would make it illegal for them to do so.
For missionaries the problems this bill poses are obvious.
In February, Nepal's legislature parliament issued a notice that citizens, stakeholders and civil society organizations can provide feedback on the bill and do so by mid-April.
Pastor Tanka Subedi — who is leading consultations among Christian church leaders to pressure for an amendment to the bill — says secularism is not a solo Christian agenda. Nepal is home to many other religions and this is an issue about freedom of religion, he says.
"The present anti-conversion bill proposal is targeted not only at Christians,” says Subedi
“This proposal not only bans conversion but also bans freedom to express and practice what you believe even though you have no intention to convert others," he says.
"This bill is totally unacceptable and has a no respect to another person's freedom and rights.”
Some of Nepal’s Hindu majority see their religion as the heart of the country's identity. The way they understand it, if the constitution declares that Nepal is a secular state then Hinduism is under threat.
But despite this, how secularism is defined in the new constitution remains unclear.
The concern is that secular is instead being used as a word that actually means sanatan — the protection of religion and culture as well as religious and cultural freedom.
But sanatan is a Hindu term. Therefore, there are serious concerns that it is about protecting Hinduism and disregarding Nepal's minority religions. Until the wording in the constitution is made clearer, these concerns will remain.
The Christian community of Nepal has been asking the government to make clear its interpretation of the constitutional provision of sanatan by ensuring equal treatment to all religious groups and amend the new constitution to ensure that every citizen has full religious freedom without restricting religious leaders to consecrate sacraments according to their beliefs.
They also want an interreligious commission to deal with practical complexities relating to religion and culture and where their representatives are nominated by religious communities themselves.
Despite all this, Nepal is loved and respected around the world for many things. It is the country of the great Gurkhas. It is the location of Mount Everest and it is the birthplace of the Buddha.
Moreover Nepal is party to international human right treaties and its anti-conversion laws can run afoul of such obligations. This can only tarnish the nation's image in the eyes of the world.
Indeed in the lead up to April, now is the time for the international community to pressure the Nepalese government to respect fundamental rights of its entire people. It is also the time for grassroots communities inside Nepal to raise their voices to protect their cultural rights.
Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.