Nepalese Christians attend a Christmas Eve Mass at the Catholic Assumption Church in Lalitpur on the outskirts of Kathamandu in 2010. The latest census says 1.4 percent of Nepal's population of 27 million is Christian but church groups claim the true number could be as high as 10 percent. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
Christmas without a public holiday is upsetting, particularly when Hindu hardliners are accusing Nepal's communist government of favoring Christian groups.
That contentious issue has been rekindled due to Nepal's co-hosting of the Nov. 30-Dec. 3 Asia-Pacific summit organized by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), a Christian group.
As Nepal's small Christian communities were marking the feast of Christ the King inside their church compound (not in public, for safety reasons) at the end of November, Kathmandu was preparing for the anticipated function.
It was organized to foster regional peace and featured over 1,500 delegates including Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and former heads of state from numerous Asian countries.
The lawmakers, businessmen, religious leaders and civil societies hailed from 45 nations, including many third world countries.
Suu Kyi has been much criticized for failing to speak out against the Myanmar military's crackdown on minority groups such as the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
She traveled around Kathmandu with heavy security as she expected to face another barrage of human rights activists calling for her ouster.
Hun Sen is no less controversial a leader, and yet he was also invited as a special guest by the government of Nepal as it drew key stakeholders in the region together to discuss ways of promoting peace and harmony.
At the end of the summit, some 1,500 locally elected mayors and their deputies and partners enjoyed a symbolic blessing in Kathmandu with holy wine. Videos of the blessing went viral on social media.
This coincided with a crescendo of criticism of the state's alleged promotion of Christianity by Nepal's media, Hindu hardliners and the general public.
The World Hindu Federation in Nepal responded to the summit with protests accusing the organizers of using it to promote Christianity, while Nepal's right-wing Congress Party boycotted the meeting.
Meanwhile, several Christian groups issued a joint statement distancing themselves from the gathering. They urged the general public and the government not to confuse local Christian organizations with the UPF, which was founded in 2005 by Korean Rev. Sun Myung-moon and his wife, Dr. Hak Ja Han-moon.
The public's wrath intensified when the authorities, in an attempt to better control the flow of traffic during the summit, imposed curbs by prohibiting motorists from driving on alternate days of the week, based on their odd or even license plates.
This sparked a public appeal to disobey the new traffic rule.
I have been well acquainted with the Nepal chapter of the UPF since 2005. While I'm aware the Catholic Church does not endorse the organization, the same as most Nepali Christian denominations, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to attend one of their sessions on interfaith dialogue.
It was one of the best-organized meetings I've ever seen in Nepal, with no expense spared. The UPF and Rev. Moon's theology are not accepted by most of the world's Christians, including the Catholic Church, as Rev. Moon claims to be the only son of God.
Christmas in shadow
The government has appointed weeklong public holidays for prominent Hindu festivals like Dashain and Tihar but it no longer recognizes Christmas as a red-letter day.
It was previously observed as a national holiday from 2008 to 2015 but was struck from the list in 2016.
Yet Maha Shivaratri, a Hindu festival that honors the god Shiva, and Buddha Jayanti, which marks Buddha's birthday, are still public holidays.
Moreover, the public is encouraged to celebrate Vashanta Panchami, a day dedicated to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, while religious conversions or any attempt at such is banned.
There are some conflicting estimates of Nepal's demographics. The latest officials census shows that Christians make up just 1.4% of the population, but Christian leaders claim there are over 12,000 churches in Nepal and 3 million followers.
If that is true, more than 10% of the population could be Christian and yet they don't merit a day off work at Christmas — that being said, the government unexpectedly revived the holiday for public employees just before the federal and parliamentary elections in November 2017.
Indigenous ethnic communities like the Rai and the Limbu also don't have any national holidays on their holy days.
Some contend that Nepal already has too many public holidays. This March, the government slashed the number from a whopping 104 days a year in 2017 to 89. Of the total, 67 apply to all civil servants while 22 are dedicated to a specific religion or culture.
Gokul Baskota, the minister for communications and information technology, said recently increasing the number of days that civil servants work would help to boost economic growth.
I hope his statement comes true one day. But it may require some campaigning from Christians, just as Muslim groups have ramped up the pressure to win more red-letter days for their religious festivals.
Representatives from the two religions could even team up and pull together for such a cause by promoting each other's interests.
Beauty of secularism
In Nepal, Christmas is starting to make its presence more keenly felt. I was working in some remote villages recently, for example, and I noticed Christmas lighting in quite a few houses.
It seems as though Nepal's tourism sector, restaurants, hotels, marketplaces and the general public are becoming quite enthusiastic about the day we celebrate Christ's birth. Even if their interests are commercial rather than religious, we can still see in this “the beauty of secularism.”
If the pro-Hindu communist government can co-host the Christian UPF's key regional summit, why must it remain so cynical in its treatment of Christmas, by failing to award this special day the respect it deserves?
How much longer must the Christian community plead for it to be made a national holiday?
There was doubtless a financial incentive to co-host the summit, which would have injected money into the local economy, but it seems somewhat hypocritical for the media to unfairly criticize Christianity while the government benefits from its largesse.
Nepal's Christian denominations must unite and strengthen their collaboration with Muslims and other minority faiths in order to make for a more level playing field.
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.