Nepalese Christian women participate in a protest demanding allocation for Christian burial grounds in Kathmandu, in this file photo. A new law in Nepal restricts religious conversion, bans the 'hurting of religious sentiment' and blasphemy. (Photo by AFP)
Nepal has enacted a law criminalizing religious conversion, joining neighbors India and Pakistan in a regional bloc in which the small Christian minority faces increasing government threats to their faith and beliefs.
The “Nepali government [has] taken a regressive step as this law severely restricts our freedom of expression and our freedom of religion or belief,” said Tanka Subedi, chairman of Nepals Religious Liberty Forum.
The bill was signed into law last week by President Bidhya Devi Bhandari and enshrines additional constitutional protection for Hinduism, which 80 percent of the population follows, the Christianity Today website reported.
The new law restricts religious conversion, bans the “hurting of religious sentiment,” and blasphemy.
Offenders face a punishment of five years imprisonment and penalty of fifty thousand rupees [approximately US$770].
The new law comes a decade after the ousted Hindu monarchy declared Nepal a secular state, and two years after the country adopted a new constitution.
Article 26 of the constitution says that, “No one shall attempt to change or convert someone from one religion to another, or disturb/jeopardize the religion of others, and such acts/activities shall be punishable by law.”
Christian Solidarity Worldwide founder Mervyn Thomas said anti-conversion laws often target religious minorities and worsen religious tensions.
“We urge the Nepali government to repeal this unjust law and amend Article 26 (3) of the constitution as they both curtail the right to freedom of religion or belief and undermine Nepal's commitments under international law,” he said in a statement.
Nepal has seen its Christian population triple in recent years because of conversions. Christians make up 1.4 percent of Nepal’s 29 million people.