Updated: September 14, 2015 08:55 PM GMT
Nepalese police stop Hindu activists as they try to break through a cordoned-off area near parliament in Kathmandu on Sept. 14. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
Nepal, which was the only officially Hindu state in the world until 2007, has voted to maintain its identity as a secular nation in a new constitution after years of contentious debate.
The move comes as a relief for minority groups, including Christians, who feared a proposal to strip Nepal of its secular identity — and declare itself Hindu — would lead to persecution. However, some faith groups are still worried that language criminalizing religious conversion and proselytizing could be used to target minorities in the future.
Parliamentarians have been voting on individual articles of a contentious draft of a new constitution, which is scheduled for promulgation Sept. 20. On Sept. 14, lawmakers voted down a proposed amendment that would have declared Nepal to be a Hindu state. It was rejected overwhelmingly by more than two-thirds of lawmakers in the 601-member Constituent Assembly.
Church officials praised the decision.
"Secularism is not only an issue of religion, but stands for freedom and equality within all the religions," said Father Silas Bogati, the vicar general of the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal.
Father Bogati said the decision implies that the state does not promote any one religion over another, and allows its citizens to choose their own identity and faith.
Hindus represent a large majority in Nepal, making up about 80 percent of the population. But in recent years, secularism has become a key issue. In 2006, Nepal's monarchy was toppled and the country was later declared a secular republic.
According to Samim Ansari, coordinator of the National Muslim Struggle Alliance, minorities have long fought for equal treatment.
"One of our key demands was to declare Nepal a secular state in the new constitution and allow its citizens to freely choose any religious belief and practice without any objection," Ansari said. "Secularism is a timely and relevant demand. It is the right of every citizen to enjoy guaranteed freedom of religion."
The Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, a hard-line Hindu party and the fourth-largest in the assembly, had submitted the proposed amendment to reinstate Nepal as a Hindu state.
Madhav Bhattarai, president of the Nepal chapter of the Hindu rights organization Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, said the decision will "hurt the sentiments" of Nepal’s Hindu majority.
"Nepal has lost the opportunity to become the only Hindu state in the world … the decision has lost our identity," he said.
The debate over Nepal’s new constitution turned violent in recent weeks. In August, at least eight people died after clashes between protesters and security forces. The protesters were demonstrating against another aspect of the constitution, which would divide the country in a way they said was not representative of ethnic minorities and indigenous communities. Hindu activists also staged protests, including a demonstration in front of parliament on Sept. 14 as lawmakers were voting on the amendment.
Following the Sept. 14 vote, two bombs exploded at two different churches in Jhapa district in eastern Nepal, according to The Kathmandu Post. There were no casualties reported, but the churches suffered damage. Police officials said investigations were underway into the blasts.
Despite this week’s vote for secularism, representatives of religious minorities say they aren’t completely satisfied.
While the draft constitution maintains secularism, it also includes wording stating that the state will safeguard "Sanatan Dharma" — often used as an alternative term to describe Hinduism. Christian leaders have also expressed concern about provisions targeting religious conversions and proselytizing, which remain in the draft constitution.
Nevertheless, many faith groups believe the constitution still represents a step forward, considering politicians had recently raised the possibility of removing secularism altogether.
The move has disappointed other critics, however.
"The secularism agreed by the top political parties kills the whole essence of the term secularism we have wanted," said Narayan Kaji Shrestha, vice chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which controls the third-most seats in parliament.