Despite new constitution, Nepal lacks full religious freedom

The word 'secularism' has been hijacked by Hindu hardliners
Despite new constitution, Nepal lacks full religious freedom
As a member of Pax Romana, I had the opportunity to be at the U.N. building in Geneva at the same time as Nepal's deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa was telling the world body that our country's new constitution allows for full religious freedom.

This is the same Thapa who had strongly opposed secularism and demanded a full restoration of the monarchy and a Hindu kingdom before joining Nepal's new government last October.

Despite what Thapa might have told this international audience, the reality on the ground in our Himalayan nation is that secularism is not readily embraced and that there remains serious constraints on religious freedom in our country.

Nepal was declared a secular state in 2007 when it abolished its 240-year-old monarchy. The state then promulgated an interim constitution and only introduced the new constitution in September.*

Prior to the promulgation of the constitution, three Christian churches in Jhapa, eastern Nepal, were bombed and Nepalese Christians were threatened by pro-Hindu groups to either leave the country or convert to Hinduism. Pro-Hindu groups also clashed with police on the streets.

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Some media, political parties and Hindu leaders even tried to define secularism as a solely Christian agenda. Such were the veracity of accusations that it led to the cancellation of Cardinal Fernando Filoni's visit to our country last year. The Vatican official overseeing the church's missionary activities across the globe wanted to meet with earthquake victims.

With the new Nepalese constitution finally in place, many minority religious leaders believed that the battle in Nepal for secularism and freedom of religion has been won.

But some Christian leaders see secularism, as it is used in the constitution, as not being authentic. Moreover, there are parts in the constitution that indirectly restrict freedom of religion.

Article 26 for example says "no person shall … convert a person of one religion to another religion … Such an act shall be punishable by law."

A close pastor friend of mine, Tanka Subedi, said this means that freedom to choose a religion has been legally criminalized and constitutionally banned even though secularism has been declared.

Based on a report prepared by one of Pax Romana's thematic working groups and made in consultation with various religious minorities, various issues that needed to be addressed in the constitution came to light. 

  • Apart from some Hindu organizations, there are no provisions for religious institutions or associations to register legally. This has caused difficulties for religious communities to manage their physical assets.
  • There have been various social and cultural complications reported where there is interreligious marriage or members of same family professing different faiths. Without a religious commission to manage such situations, there are risks of intensifying social complexities.
  • Christians and some from other religious minorities are facing difficulties acquiring proper burial grounds.
  • Article 4 of the constitution, provides a narrow and ambiguous definition of secularism and therefore, there is no guarantee of freedom of religion.
  • There are serious concerns about freedom of conversion and how this affects religious priests, monks, imams or pastors. Clause 2 of Article 26 of the Nepalese Constitution has declared legal punishment to those who facilitate the conversion process and hence strictly prohibits freedom of choice of religion as provided by first clause of the same article.
 

The word secularism 

Part of the problem with the new constitution is that the word secularism has been hijacked.

The concern is that secular is being used to mean the protection of Sanatan religion and culture as well as religious and cultural freedom.

Generally, the world Sanatan is understood to be a Hindu term. Therefore, there is a big question mark as to whether this word also includes protecting Nepal's minority religions.

Not that another Hindu-majority country such as neighboring India is able to appreciate this ambiguity.

Enraged by the idea of Nepal's secularism, Hindu hardline groups in India have created an undeclared trade blockade, which is immoral considering how the country is still trying to recover from last year's earthquake. Much of Nepal's imports enter the country via India, a large country that surrounds Nepal on three sides.

While the Indian government has categorically denied a hand in the blockade of essential supplies, we must not forget that our neighbor is ruled by a party that is closely linked to groups wanting to turn secular India into a Hindu theocratic state.

That aside, the one thing I have found is that Nepalese politicians are very good at playing with and twisting words that could be used here with Sanatan.

Morally politicians are obligated to declare Nepal a secular state — especially for an international audience — but the fear is that the government could still favor Hinduism at the expense of other faiths.

A constitution needs to be the foundation of the national legislature system and it should be written in simple and clear language so everyone can understand and appreciate it.

The fact that our constitution makes it illegal to change one's faith also needs to be addressed before our leaders can truly tell the world that freedom of religion exists in Nepal.

*This has been corrected. The new constitution was introduced in September, not October as earlier reported.

Prakash Khadka is a Catholic 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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