Nepali Christians pray during a church service in Lalitpur on the outskirts of Kathmandu in this Nov. 4, 2017 file photo. Christianity has spread rapidly over the last two decades in the country, where many see it as an escape from the deeply entrenched caste system, but critics say the new Criminal Code is hounding foreign missionaries out of the country and further persecuting those who identify with the faith inside its borders. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
Religion was one of the most discussed issues of the year in Nepal, fueled by the government's draft policy on faith-based NGOs, a new act banning proselytization and criminalizing religious conversion, and a less than flattering report from the European Union on the national election.
In fact, religious minorities including Christian communities have found themselves struggling to exist in a shrinking space since January amid a general clampdown on freedom of religious expression.
Nepal's two-phase legislative election, the political hot cake of the previous New Year, took place on Nov. 26 and Dec. 7, 2017, just months before the nation held its third presidential election on March 13.
In its February report, the EU's Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) raised a number of concerning issues including how Christians were not represented in the election despite comprising 1.4 percent of the population.
It singled this out for criticism as Nepal's electoral system supposedly operates on a proportional representation system.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) responded with a press release in March citing its dissatisfaction with the EU.
Some critics of the European body said it was loath to see Nepal making social progress due to its communist leadership.
Others saw it as a response to fears the country may be "too pro-India," after representatives from both countries met in Brussels and agreed there were flaws in Nepal's constitution.
Under the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is seen as being unhappy with the direction Nepal has been taking, for example, abolishing its monarchy and establishing secularism. Moreover, there have been a number of conflicts involving Terai-based Madheshi political parties, which have close ties to New Delhi.
This assumption gained more credibility when India was accused of triggering an economic and humanitarian crisis in Nepal — which as a landlocked country relies on its bigger neighbor for all of its petroleum supplies — by launching an undeclared blockade on the country in September 2015, the same month Nepal passed its long-stalled charter.
New Delhi responded by denying the blockade and blaming the shortages on (India-backed) Madheshi protesters, who claimed the new constitution violated their human rights and sought to further marginalize them.
Inflamed by the content of the recent EUEOM report, nationalistic Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli requested the European body "correct" it with immediate effect. He said it was "unacceptable" for the agency to interfere with religious issues in Nepal.
Many Nepalese still eye Christianity warily as a so-called "greenback-funded foreign religion."
But I would argue the Christian population is not even acknowledged as a minority group in Nepal.
Christian leaders claim there are over 12,000 churches in the country and a total of three million Christians. That means as much as 10 percent of the population could identify with the religious faith. As such, their representatives in parliament should be more demanding.
In April, a 23-page draft of the National Integrity Policy was released as the government sketched out plans to tightly control non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those suspected of proselytizing via foreign Christian and other faith-based groups.
I believe this was a direct manifestation of the anger K.P. Oli felt at the EUEOM report.
This policy would have prevented campaigning on issues such as the rights of indigenous people, migrants and refugees, as well as freedom of expression and of religious belief.
However, after much criticism, the office of the prime minister held broader consultations with more stakeholders and sought feedback that could be incorporated into the policy.
It seems the policy is still being discussed, as the final version has not been made available yet.
The government is encouraging NGOs not to get involved in religious activities. I am aware that the social welfare council (SWC), the government agency responsible for monitoring NGOs, does not allow projects on inter-faith dialogue and religious harmony nowadays.
It rejects the fact that larger numbers of civic associations and religious bodies still have to register as NGOs.
SWC officers scrutinize proposed projects and mark out any "controversial" words or phrases such as religion, inter-faith dialogue, religious harmony, faith-based groups, integral, and holistic, to name a few.
Code word: crackdown
The Criminal Code (Act) passed by Nepal's parliament in 2017 criminalizes religious conversion. It took effect in August, triggering the arrests of some Nepalese Christians and the deportation of certain foreign missionaries.
In July, the government fined and deported a foreign couple on charges of religiously converting others.
Later in October a member of Nepal's security personnel was arrested for giving testimony at a religious conference.
Meanwhile, 10 evangelists were nabbed in November in two separate incidents, along with one Japanese, an Australian, and five Jehovah's Witnesses.
This was a clear indication of how the criminalization of religious activities is specifically targeting Christian groups.
Government officials also recently requested that a Biblical epithet be removed from a hospital building financed by a Christian faith-based NGO in western Nepal's Surkhet District.
Yet several statues of the Hindu deity Shiva that featured prominently in its garden, as well as an image of Lord Krishna hanging above its front door, were left untouched.
There have also been cases where Christian-run schools and homes have been accused of proselytizing by conducting morning and evening prayers, or offering counseling services for children.
The authorities seem to have conveniently forgotten that many senior bureaucrats, including members of the royal family, have benefited from the more comprehensive and cheaper education these private schools offer.
As a final insult, the public was invited to give feedback on the Criminal Code on April 14, 2016 but Christian leaders say their suggestions fell on deaf ears despite submitting over 45,000 petitions.
Some have compared the severity of the situation to Muslim-majority Pakistan with its strict blasphemy laws.
Whether this is a legitimate argument or not, the provisions in the nation's new Criminal Code further distance Nepal from its international human rights' commitments.
Dust of secularism
In contrast to the SWC officers, K.P. Oli's nationalistic secularism seems to have turned into what we in Nepali refer to as lampasarbad — or the bureaucratic tendency to prostrate oneself at another's foot.
For example, vast government resources were mobilized for the hosting of the Asia-Pacific summit of the Korean Universal Peace Federation (UPF) in Kathmandu in early December.
The public voiced its displeasure after reports emerged the government had spent over US$1 million in providing security for VIPs and generally staging the summit, a platform for high-level interfaith dialogue and other issues.
After people cottoned on to the UPF's connection to the wealthy Korean Unification Church, the government began taking flak from other politicians, influential leaders from the ruling party itself and the media for supporting what many consider to be a quirky religion, or even a cult.
The Unification Church was founded in 1954 by messiah claimant Sun Myung Moon of South Korea. His followers, often referred to pejoratively as "Moonies," adhere to a unique Christian theology.
This year ahead of Dashain, the country's most important Hindu festival that falls in October, the office of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari issued a public notice inviting senior officials, political figures, businesspeople and members of the public to dab a red mark on their forehead.
It is worth pointing out here that secularism in Nepal is not absolute, in the sense that religions are not fully detached from the state. In fact, most state sectors have close practical ties to the rules and laws that apply to Hinduism.
I don't see any rationale behind banning interfaith dialogue in a country like Nepal where most people have deeply-rooted religious values. Such dialogue is needed to prevent conflict.
And of course, all religious groups should be treated equally, and freedom of religious or belief has to be guaranteed.
I see the lack of ecumenical collaboration between the numerous Christian denominations and several parallel federations who are active in Nepal as being among the biggest challenges for Nepal's Christian community. Moreover, there are numerous cults similar to Moon's UPF that many Churches do not acknowledge as being a legitimate part of Christianity, yet they remain more active on the ground than other denominations.
These cults, whether they are genuine branches of Christianity or not, as viewed by the general public and government as being "on the same page" as Nepal's broader Christian community.
Despite all these doctrinal differences, however, and as anti-Christian sentiment continues to grow in Nepal, Christian groups must not forget the age-old mantra, "united we stand, divided we fall." They should combine their efforts to bring society closer for the common good.
By the same token, they should open their hearts and foster friendly ties with more prominent religions in the country.
Peace will only be possible if minority groups can also enjoy justice and everyone tries to be more sensitive to cultural, social and religious differences.
Hopefully, the government can get the ball rolling by making Christmas a public holiday so all Nepalis can celebrate their respective faiths respectfully.