Nepali Hindu devotees take part in a ritual worshipping the sun god during the Chhath Festival as they stand in the Bagmati River in Kathmandu on Nov. 13. Devotees undergo a fast and offer water and milk to the sun god at dawn and dusk on the banks of rivers or small ponds and pray for the longevity and health of their spouse. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
Nepal's most important festivals of the year, Dashain and Tihar, took place in October and November, highlighting the country's deeply ingrained Hindu religious values such as brotherhood, strong family bonds, respect for all creatures, and the triumph of good over evil spirits.
Families gathered to celebrate the two week-long festivals, a rare opportunity for bonding in a country where many migrant workers travel to far-flung locations to find work.
One of the key rituals on these occasions involves elder family members bestowing blessings on younger relations, while others exchange gifts to show fraternal love.
The two festivals not only see the worship of Hindu deities like the Goddess Durga and the ritual sacrificing of animals to appease the gods (Dashain), but also the strengthening of bonds between people, birds and even revered animals like cows.
As is the case with Deepawali (Diwali in India), the Hindu festival of lights that takes place each fall, people light candles around their houses to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness.
Even liberal-minded Christians like to participate, signaling a positive note for social harmony, religious tolerance, and cross-cultural understanding.
The office of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari issued a public notice this year inviting senior officials, political figures, businesspeople, and the public to dab a red mark on their forehead (known as tika) during Dashain to symbolically and auspiciously accept the blessings of the gods.
Prime Minister KP Oli made similar entreaties urging people to temporarily wear a tika.
This follows a tradition that has been practiced in Nepal for centuries, from ancient Hindu kings to Nepal's last king, Gyanendra, who ceded power in 2008 when the monarchy was abolished after the country was declared a secular republic in 2007.
However, respect for the Hindu monarchy still runs deep in the country.
The security forces officially organize Hindu puja ceremonies — using prayers, songs or other rituals to show reverence to a god or spirit — offer gun salutes, and celebrate several Hindu festivals as part of their official duties.
Government-run hospitals, offices, and schools also have a small Hindu temple built on their premises for the purposes of worship.
Meanwhile, teachers and students from all public and most private schools celebrate Vasant Panchami each year, a festival dedicated to the Goddess Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, language, music, and art.
This is an example of what is known as Sanatana dharma, or the duty of all Hindus regardless of class or caste to protect their religion and culture from generation to generation amid growing secularism.
Act of defiance
At the same time, there has been a backlash against Christians with over a dozen recorded cases of persecution against their communities this year.
This trend worsened after the new criminal code took effect in August 2017. Even though it includes more provisions against discrimination, it's anything but progressive in terms of respecting people's freedom of religion.
In July, the Department of Immigration fined a foreign couple 50,000 rupees (US$438) each and deported them on charges of religiously converting others.
Philippine national Richard De Vera and his Indonesian wife, Rita Gonga, were staying in Nepal on business visas and running a restaurant in Patan city when they were accused of converting Nepali Hindus to Christianity, a criminal offense.
The government cited as "evidence" the fact that De Vera had been serving as a pastor at his local church, which it said violated the terms and conditions of his business visa.
But why can't people be allowed to practice their religion when living in a foreign land? Pastoral work should not be seen as a business, as it does not yield any financial profit. And how would people react if a Nepali Hindu priest who ventured overseas to work as a migrant worker in a majority Muslim country was deported for worshipping at a Hindu temple?
This was not an isolated case.
In October a member of Nepal's security personnel was arrested for giving testimony during Mass at a religious conference while on leave.
But if the security forces are allowed and even encouraged to practice Hindu rituals, why was this man punished for professing his personal faith, which is every citizen's right as enshrined in the constitution?
Meanwhile, 10 evangelists were arrested this November in two separate incidents, along with one Japanese national and one Australian, while five Jehovah's Witnesses were apprehended.
The allegations against them included coercing others and forcing people to engage in religious conversions, which seems absurd as this does not appear to have been the case.
Jehovah's Witnesses are known for going from door to door as part of their relatively aggressive proselytization, but no one has to open their door or chat to them unless they do so of their own volition. Moreover, they don't offer people money to "sign up" with their religion. If they did, huge swathes of Nepali society would have "accepted" Christianity and be flaunting their newfound wealth.
In secular Nepal, whatever religious group or sect people believe in, they should have the right to travel and express their beliefs freely.
For instance, Hindus are allowed to worship around the clock for a week as part of a ceremony known as Maha Yagya. This is one of several religiously themed public activities that no one has challenged, and so is left alone.
But the same cannot be said for other religions. This shows how deeply rooted Hindu culture is despite the country being declared a secular republic 11 years ago.
Despite this sense of bias, it is impossible to deny the existence of other religions, beliefs, and cultures.
According to my understanding, the president and prime minister subscribe to the tenets of communism, an atheistic ideology. As such, their decision to organize and endorse certain Hindu festivals at a government level by issuing public announcements is unusual and discriminatory.
In another example of discrimination against a minority religion, the government recently removed a Biblical epithet from a hospital building paid for by a Christian NGO in western Nepal's Surkhet. However the statues of Lord Shiva in its garden and an image of Lord Krishna hanging above the front door were left untouched.
Moreover, Christian schools are targeted and accused of proselytizing for conducting morning prayers or mentioning the word "God," let alone "Jesus."
In most cases where the security forces arrest Christians on such flimsy grounds, the public is complicit.
I have noticed the rise lately of small groups of "anti-Christian extremists." Exacerbating the situation, many mainstream and online media paint these incidents in a way that distorts the truth and casts the Christian community in a negative light.
Christian leaders speak
Pastor BP Khanal, a Christian politician and secretary for the Nepal chapter of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB), recently posted the following message on his Facebook page.
"The country is ruled by communists who ascended to power on the basis of their commitment to establishing a welfare state in favor of ethnic and religious minorities.
"They do not believe in any religion yet they have been seen as organizing official events to celebrate Hindu festivals while prosecuting members of religious minorities as if they have committed a criminal offense.
"This creates the feeling that we are still living under the former one-party Panchayat political system."
He appealed to the government to adopt a more "neutral" attitude to lay the framework for a fair and just society.
Pastor Tanka Subedi chairs the Nepal Christian Society (NCS), a coalition of Evangelical Churches in Nepal. He said the president and prime minister are free to practice any religion in their private lives. But as public office holders they are duty-bound to not discriminate against other religions, which makes their decision to publicly promote and participate in certain religious ceremonies unacceptable, he said.
If Nepal is still a Hindu state the government should come out and say so in an open and transparent manner to not sow confusion, he added.
Moreover, if Christian tourists can enter the airport with a Bible in their luggage, then why are they not allowed to use it according to their faith, he asked.
If the government wants people to refrain from religious practices just because they are visiting on a tourist or business visa, then it should be able to seize their Bible at the airport. And if that were the case, the state must also "summon the courage" to control Hindu scripture that is brought into the country by road, in the interests of fairness, he added
Challenges to peace
Nepal is considered a reasonably religiously tolerant country despite outbreaks of violence between Hindus and Muslims, as well as examples of Christians being persecuted.
However, the prejudicial behavior of some public servants and small extremist groups serves as an alarming challenge to social harmony.
As Nepal like many countries becomes increasingly heterogeneous, more people are finding themselves in a quandary in terms of not being able to freely practice their religious and cultural traditions.
If the government wants to show it truly respects equal rights, the president should host a Christmas party at his office for Christians and celebrate Eid al-Adha with Muslims.
The question now is whether the communist-run government can usher in a more reasonable code of conduct for Nepal's majority Hindu society by granting foreigners and migrant workers their due rights
Nepal's secularism is not absolute, in the sense that religion is not completely restricted, and the country can still flourish if it is more open-minded and welcoming of people from all cultures and religious beliefs.
But sadly, for the time being, identifying yourself as a Christian remains heavily stigmatized and taboo.
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.
This article was first published 27.11.2018.