Christian leaders have launched a petition calling on the Nepalese government to repeal a new law that prohibits evangelism and religious conversion.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported last month that Nepali President Bidhya Devi Bhandari had signed a Criminal Code Bill that includes a provision that outlaws religious conversion and the "hurting of religious sentiment." The bill was reportedly signed into law on Oct. 16, the same day that Nepal was elected by the U.N. General Assembly as one of 15 new members of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
C.B. Gahatraj, president of the Christian Federation of Nepal, warned that the new law targets religious men and women who want to evangelize and share their faith.
"Christians have been cheated in the past with assurances that have never been put into practice. We are not just going to be used as vote banks as in the past," he said, as reported by The Christian Post, citing Asia News.
"We demand an immediate amendment to the law to ensure freedom of conversion and choice. Everyone is free to choose their faith and practice it," he added.
There had been concerns that Clause 160 in Section 9, the provision of the new law that bans religious conversions, could be used to limit a wide variety of religious expression and belief. Some have feared that the clause could be used to claim that the charitable activities of religious groups or people talking about their beliefs are attempts at conversions.
CSW and other human rights groups have warned that the new law could send believers to prison for up to five years if found guilty of forcefully converting people.
"The new law didn't come unexpectedly," said Rolf Zeegers, analyst at Open Doors' World Watch Research unit.
"When Nepal became a secular state in 2008 Christians in the country experienced a huge increase in freedom. Christianity flourished and grew rapidly, tripling in size between 2008 and 2017 – this to the anger of Hindu radicals who have tried constantly to restore religious freedom restrictions ever since. One of their greatest achievements was the inclusion of article 26 [criminalising religious conversion] in the country's September 2015 constitution," he went on to say.
Dinesh Bhattarai, advisor to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, had reportedly promised to address the Christian community's concerns over religious freedom before the parliamentary and provincial elections, which are scheduled for Nov. 26 and Dec. 7, respectively.
Deuba has vowed that secularism will be more institutionalized and the rights of minorities will be protected in order to ensure the success of the elections.
Some reports have noted that the growth of Christianity in Nepal is among the highest in the world.
Some critics attribute the growth to the lure of money from foreign evangelical organizations, but anthropologist Ian Gibson refuted the theory, noting that the majority of those who converted have "lost far more than they have gained" by adopting Christianity. He noted that they often experience discrimination in employment and are typically ostracized from their families and communities, and even disinherited.