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Caste-away: Dalits seek escape through conversion in Nepal

Oppressive social hierarchical system sees 'untouchables' make up bulk of new Christians
Caste-away: Dalits seek escape through conversion in Nepal

In this file photograph taken on Oct. 8, 2017, a Nepali Christian takes part in a church service in Lapa village in Dhading, some 100 kms northwest of Kathmandu. Despite strict laws that ban religious conversion, Christianity has spread rapidly over the last two decades in Nepal, where many see it as an escape from the deeply entrenched caste system. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)

Published: February 26, 2019 09:03 AM GMT
Updated: February 26, 2019 09:21 AM GMT

The Christian community in Nepal has not been spared the wrath of society's caste-based inequality, even though bottom-rung Dalits are increasingly turning to Christianity as a means to escape their fate.

Religious conversions are illegal in Nepal but the numbers suggest many consider it a risk worth taking as the “untouchables” are among the most oppressed by this complex social system, which leaves no sphere untouched.

Testament to how legions of Dalits are prepared to gamble on breaking the law in search of a more dignified life, Nepal now harbors one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world.

The Federation of National Christians Nepal (FNCN) estimates there are 12,000 churches in the country and millions of Nepalese are believed to have turned to Christianity despite a 2011 census claiming Christians make up just 1.4 percent of the population, or several hundred thousand people.

A whopping 65 percent of the newly converted are Dalits, according to the FNCN.

The churches began to sprout up in the wake of multiparty democracy, which was ushered in around 1990.

This came almost four decades after foreign missionaries were permitted to work in the country on condition they refrain from proselytizing. 

Stinging stigmatization

There are between 3.6 million and 5 million Dalits in Nepal, which means they could comprise as much as one fifth of the total population.

There are three Dalit subgroups: those who live in the hilly regions, the mountain dwellers, and the Madeshi Dalits of the Terai, a lowland region in the south that extends to northern India.

The discrepancy in numbers is partly due to so many having legally changed their surname to make it sound like they belong to a more privileged caste as a last-ditch attempt to ease the discrimination they so often face.

They suffer because of their race, ethnicity, gender and language, leading to a lack of development in their communities.

Activists say half of Nepal's Dalits live below the poverty line. Many have to cover vast distances to access basic healthcare services, while more than 60 percent marry before the age of 15.

Those living in the Terai fare even worse: one third of Madeshi Dalits can read and write, while only 5 percent have access to regular toilet facilities.

Dalits are routinely denied access to public and private utilities and services such as temples and religious and cultural functions. They often face physical and verbal abuse, threats, social boycotts, barriers to intercaste marriages, and occupational segregation.

Escape plan

As such, many see converting to Christianity as a gateway to a better life, or a hammer with which to smash the Hindu-imposed caste system so they can enjoy at least some semblance of equality.

This may well be true — to a degree. However, it also begs the question: how welcoming is the Church in such cases?

I was born as a Kshatriya — the traditional warrior class, one below Brahmins (priests) — to an influential family that observed the caste system.

I remember observing how, at my aunt's teashop, some customers were told they had to wash their hands before entering, while others were not. They also had to wash their cups and plates after using them. The state of their hands was irrelevant. What made the difference was their caste.

For lower-caste people like ironsmiths, leather workers and tailors, the cups they drank from had to be sanctified afterwards with holy water.

To my child's mind, this segregation didn't make much sense but I just accepted it as a normal part of life. As I grew up, I realized this practice was not unique to my village but universally practiced across Nepal.

That being said, I was never fully conscious of what it meant to be discriminated against until I “discovered” the Church while still a teenager. Only then did it dawn on me that I belonged to a certain caste and that people from other castes were allowed to look down on me based on that.

At the time, my faith was still budding. I would call this “epiphany” the first strike against Christianity in my younger eyes.

Later, I saw how caste was also a major concern when it came to getting married, even among Christian families.

The problem was that evangelists had found their way to remote ethnic villages, but the churches that started to spring up there were often formed along caste- or ethnic-based lines.

For example, there would be different churches for the Chepang, Tamang and Dalit communities.

That being said, Christian converts in Nepal are not all poor and socially downtrodden.

In addition to marginalized communities, there has also been an influx from higher castes. Members of this group often hold influential leadership roles within the Church, creating a sense of neofeudalism.

Since Nepal's churches depend on religious conversions to boost their numbers, a higher-caste pastor once told me Dalit pastors were not so welcomed as newcomers tended to spurn them.

Churches in neighboring India have recently tried to spur dialogue on the plight the Dalits still face, with the intention of appealing to the Vatican for a separate dicastery for them.

I particularly liked how Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, the first prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, said respecting the rights and dignity of each ethnicity or race should be encoded in the Church's human development mission.

That would certainly be a positive step forward.

Christ and caste

Is it possible to serve Christ and respect the caste system at the same time?

Sometimes we domesticate Christianity to serve our own weakness, but when we interpret the Bible in our own context and comfort zone there is a risk of being diverted away from the important messages contained in the holy book.

In Mark 16:15, the risen Christ commands us to: “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the gospel to all creation.”

Who do this refer to? Are Dalits not also a part of creation? Of course they are. Everyone is. Every living creature! Christ has invited us all to be one with Him.

When converting to Christianity, some of our beliefs may change but the (negative) culture of caste-based discrimination remains the same.

This would seem to negate full and healthy change, and our emancipation in Christ will remain trapped in a vicious circle of social injustice.

We hope to promote the dignified assimilation of people from all ethnic backgrounds into the single body of Christ. That is why caste-based discrimination within the Church must end.

Moreover, since the Church forbids social injustice in the name of caste, Christians should feel compelled to take action to aid secular Nepalese society, which is still suffering deeply.

Why is this important? Apart from other considerations, it is because the Bible instructs us so.

The status quo of social bigotry in Nepal is not just a shame — it is a sin.

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.

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