KATHMANDU, Nepal — Catholic Church leaders in Nepal expressed concern over what they believe are flaws in the “freedom of religion” portion of the fledgling democracy’s proposed new constitution.
Amid Hindu nationalist lobbying, clamoring that Nepal — a Hindu monarchy for centuries, until a decade ago — should declare itself as a “Hindu nation,” Church and secular activists are more worried about the fine print of Article 31 in the new constitution. The article deals with “freedom of religion” under a section dealing with “fundamental rights and responsibilities” of its citizens.
Article 31, Clause 1 upholds individual freedom of religion as a fundamental right, along with a “right to abandon religion” — an inclusion that is widely seen as reflecting the clout of the Maoists, who play a vital role in the country’s coalition government. Clause 2 guarantees that all religious communities have the right “to establish, run and preserve their religious trust according to the law,” a provision that is palatable to the Christian community because it would grant official recognition to the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations.
However, Clause 3 bans proselytizing or conversion by clerics, as “those activities are punishable according to law.” It’s this portion that has caused consternation among Church leaders.
The Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal presented a memorandum to major parties in the ruling coalition on July 12, calling for a change in Clause 3, urging that the word “secular” should be inserted in the preamble to ensure full religious freedom.
“This provision [Clause 3] practically takes away the freedom brought in by Clause 1,” Father Silas Bogati, vicar general, who presented the memorandum to the ruling parties, told the Register in an interview.
“It would be like the Sword of Damocles. The dangerous third clause could be used against clergy and church, with wild allegations of conversion,” reiterated Father Bogati on behalf of the minuscule Catholic community, which accounts for less than 10,000 in a nation of more than 30 million people.
The concern has been repeatedly raised in ongoing debates and seminars organized by the Christian community, as Nepal hurried to promulgate its long-pending constitution by the deadline of the first week of August.
Nepal’s centuries-old Hindu monarchy was brought down by a people’s uprising led by Maoists in 2006. Since then, Nepal has been struggling to hammer out a new constitution with the first Constituent Assembly being dissolved in 2012, after failing to complete the task, despite an extended tenure of four years.
Racing to finalize the new constitution by the deadline, government officials and legislators from the 601-member Constituent Assembly fanned out to the far corners of the country with 200,000 copies of the draft document to solicit citizens’ final recommendations.
Christians Speak Out
In response, the Federation of National Christians-Nepal, of which the Catholic Church is a member, has been carrying on a spirited campaign and intense lobbying at different levels to make their voices heard.
Lokmani Dhakal, one of the four Christians in the Constituent Assembly, pointed out the pitfalls in the new constitution when he addressed a gathering of 60 Christian leaders on religious freedom in the new constitution at an ecumenical conference in Kathmandu on July 6.
Unlike the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestants have made rapid inroads in Nepal since the 1990s, when state-sponsored persecution of converts was eased. They now number well over 1 million.
“Without freedom to speak about one’s faith, what is the meaning of religious freedom?” Dhakal told the Register.
“I have submitted an amendment to the drafting committee. We cannot accept this provision [Clause 3],” added Dhakal.
Some speakers at the conference called for Christian responses to the vociferous campaign by the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (National People’s Party), which is demanding that Nepal should be a “Hindu nation.” The RPP, known as the “King’s Party,” has been carrying out demonstrations on behalf of their nationalistic campaign in several places.
But many others objected to it. The Hindu nationalists were trying to lure the Christians to the streets, some suggested, so that they can polarize the Hindu majority. Hence, one of the action items from the July 6 meeting was to send key Christian leaders to different regions to brief the scattered Christian community.
“Whatever happens, we have reasons to be optimistic,” Chirendra Satyal, a prominent lay Catholic leader who embraced the Church from an elite Hindu family of royal priests, told the Register on July 17.
“Nepal will never return to be a Hindu nation. The diversity of different ethnic groups will make it difficult to impose the Hindu writ,” asserted Satyal.
The final draft of the constitution, Father Bogati said, “will be crucial for the future of the Church.” With Christianity not recognized as a religion in Nepal — unlike Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam — he pointed out, “Right now, churches cannot be registered as a legal body, and we cannot buy property.“
He noted that Assumption Church in Lalitpur, in Kathmandu valley — the biggest Catholic church in Nepal — is built on land purchased by a Catholic group registered as a non-governmental organization, of which he is a member.
Said Satyal, “Once the Church is recognized as a legal entity, we will have much more freedom.”
Burial Ground Issue
Satyal, who also has been a regular Catholic participant in several ecumenical protests demanding burial ground for Christians, pointed out that there is a strong cultural prejudice against Christian burial traditions in the Hindu-majority nation.
For example, remains of Christians buried on private land have been dug up and thrown out by locals, prompting Christians to carry out street protests demanding land for their own cemeteries.
Dozens of cubicles on the compound walls of Assumption Church, where the urns of the cremated Christian bodies are kept, bear testimony to the hostility the Christian community had been facing in seeking to have their loved ones buried according to their beliefs.
The memorandum presented by the Church’s Apostolate Vicariate for Nepal also urged the government to honor its 2011 promise to the ecumenical Christian Federation to grant burial land for the Christians.
“This demand is not just for a few plots,” said Satyal, who added that even the national human-rights commission and the Supreme Court of Nepal had ruled in favor of the Christians. “It’s a question of recognizing the fundamental rights of the Christian community.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.