Updated: July 05, 2018 10:04 AM GMT
Nepali Christians take part in a church service in Lapa village in Dhading in October 2017. Christianity has spread over the last two decades in Nepal but strict laws still ban religious conversion and recent trends suggest anti-Christian sentiment is resurfacing as a form of perceived patriotism. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
With anti-Christian sentiment growing in Nepal, church groups are finding it harder to accomplish their humanitarian and other missions on the ground.
To help overcome this, church leaders must improve their fraternal ties with other groups and make sure they stay updated on the laws of the land.
When Nepal had practically no public health service, Christians were the ones who first opened health facilities in the remotest part of the country; there are still very few mission hospitals operating today.
When there was very little or no road access, Christians were the ones who brought vehicles into various parts of the country.
When there were no good schools, Christians were the ones who introduced education of an international standard.
Many high-level bureaucrats, including former members of the royal family, are the product of Christian missionary schools. They received a better and cheaper education than that offered by many private schools
However, the competition to get one’s child or children enrolled in a decent school in Nepal is still fiercely intense.
Christian faith-based institutions, NGOs and other associated groups are probably responsible for about half of the developmental projects that are either taking place, or have taken place, in remote corners of the country.
Without such efforts, Nepal would still be decades further behind in terms of its development. The nation has those first Christian missionaries to thank for much of this, as they acted as the trigger for much of what followed.
Despite this immense contribution to society, however, the Christian community in Nepal is still facing resistance from government officials and swathes of the general public, many of whom would prefer to live in developed Western (ironically, Christian-majority) countries.
Christians were serving their missions in Nepal even before the country was unified and Hindu became the official state religion.
Later, Capuchin Franciscan priests were expelled along and some groups of Nepali Christians from Kathmandu valley banished from the country.
The process of Hinduisation swept over the country and engulfed many ethnic groups, who adopted Hinduism as their religion.
At some point in history the king of Nepal invited Muslims to settle in the country.
Now nationalism in Nepal is inseparable from Hinduism. As such, some sections of society think that by condemning Christians or Christianity as a foreign religion, they are showing themselves to be "better Nepalis."
This make me feel concerned that it will be hard to unite the concepts of patriotism and Christianity in this Himalayan country that so often seems removed from the rest of the world.
Despite all of the good deeds and projects undertaken by Christian communities in Nepal, their image has become muddied as society remains somewhat ignorant of their various denominations and sects.
I see this as one of the root causes of the current problems Christianity in general now faces in the country.
Few people know exactly how many Christian denominations are active in Nepal, but they all are placed in one basket by local and state governments and the general public.
We should accept there are a small number of groups who are actively engaged in attempting to forcefully evangelize the Nepalis in the name of Christianity, while the majority of denominations have been supporting development and empowerment projects through social action.
Regimes change, law doesn’t
Nepal has seen various regimes come and go since the revolution in 1951 — the charter has been rewritten four times in 1959, 1962, 1990 and most recently in 2015 — but throughout all this Christian groups may have continued to play a vital role from both inside and outside the country.
Nevertheless, society has always viewed them with at least a degree of suspicion, never granting practitioners full religious freedom.
Article 9 of the Nepal Treaty Act (1990) states that any provisions added to the act must not contradict the prevailing law or they will be rendered void.
However, Christian groups have often fallen foul of this by not reading the fine print whereas a bit of closer study may have found ways around it.
At present, Christians cannot even hold a prayer meeting or Mass without fear the authorities could intervene and hold them accountable if the event is misconstrued as an act of evangelization and a breach of public order.
I have been observing such incidents and they appear to be growing, stoked by social media.
Most religious congregations and missions in Nepal come a cropper here because they fail to keep themselves updated of the laws of the land and all of the related, and new, legal provisions being put in place.
Some may claim life was harder for Christian groups in former times but I would argue that things have got tougher now in the wake of technological advances that allow individuals or groups with certain agendas to trigger "viral" news almost at the touch of a button.
Most church properties in Nepal are either registered in the name of an NGO or the name of an individual, for example a church leader.
This creates new risks, such as putting a whole range of properties in danger in the event that one particular NGO enters into conflict with the government. In such cases, the state can seize all of their properties.
On the flip side, having a group of church properties registered in the name of one person raises questions of transparency and accountability. It can give church leaders a greater sense of empowerment, which creates potential windows for abuse.
As a minority group in Nepal, Christians still lack the human resources to carry out their evangelizing in a thorough or sustainable way. Therefore, we need to depend on our brothers and sisters from other faiths.
But I think all of these Christian organizations need to work from the heart not just tactically, so to speak, from the head.
Sadly, due to the recent rise of anti-Christian sentiment, as I've mentioned, I have witnessed many attempts by my more politically motivated friends and associates to gain advantage by following a strategy of "dividing and conquering."
And we don't really have an answer to this strategy because of our shortcomings, especially our vulnerability in legal terms, as the government views so many of the religious activities carried out by Christian groups that are registered as NGOs as potential crimes.
Sometimes I feel like a second-class citizen — even an alien among own people — just by virtue of being a Christian.
Seize the day
There are quite a few Christian federations or groups that are operating in tandem with one another, while others prefer to act independently.
Most of these groups focus on their own problems and their own rights whereas the legal restrictions on religious freedom in Nepoal apply to all minority religious groups. If all these subsets and minorities were to band together, their collective voice would surely be louder and stronger.
As the arson attacks, false accusations of proselytizing and other attacks on Christians mount up, Christian groups are just as likely to try and score points "for their own team" at the expense of what should be their fraternal organizations rather than pulling together for the common good.
Everyone wants to claim credit for a "win" regardless of whether that individual or group had any role to play in that particular achievement.
Such divisiveness also throws into doubt whether all the support that is directed at Nepal from the international Christian community ultimately reaches those it is intended to help.
This state of unhealthy competition and fractious relations between these Christian groups needs to be resolved.
Moreover, some Christian leaders are divided by their political ideology as they follow the agendas of mainstream political parties toward Christian communities.
For example, some prominent Christian figures are still advocating for a Hindu state while Nepal's constitution has already been declared secular. This poses a threat not only to Christians but to all religious minorities, even including liberal Hindus.
The Christian community in Nepal as a whole needs to ditch such vested interests and desire for power and try to act like better messengers of Christ’s love by putting those in need front and center.
Also, it would behoove those Christian missionaries who know the Bible inside-out but have never opened a law book to brush up on some of the provisions in the charter that can actually aid rather than harm their cause (if they are properly understood).
Even though we often rail at Article 26 in the constitution — especially clause 3 — clause 1 guarantees freedom of religion and clause 2 opens the door for the protection and conservation of religious properties in the name of religious trusts instead of NGOs and individual accounts.
As a concrete law on this issue has yet to be drafted, the Christian community, if sufficiently prudent, would be well advised to engage in the process of getting such a law drawn up and approved.
If successful, this would allow for religious trusts to own properties that cannot so easily be taken away by the authorities whenever conflict breaks out between the Christian group (or trust) and the government.
Christians should not see the curtailment of their religious freedom as being targeted only at them. Rather, all religious minorities are potential victims of this, meaning we have a responsibility to speak up not just for ourselves but also for others who are in the same boat.
Despite the legal and social threat to Christian groups in Nepal, there is an opportunity to build bridges among different denominations, raise awareness of legal issues and foster inter-religious dialogue and fellowship for the greater good.
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