Nepali President Bidhya Devi Bhandari has approved a Criminal Code Bill that includes a provision that outlaws religious conversion and the "hurting of religious sentiment."
According to the international human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Bhandari signed the bill into law on Oct. 16, despite appeals from human rights advocates not to approve the measure.
"We are deeply saddened that this Bill is now law. Our appeals to the president and other policy makers to amend this have been ignored. Nepali government have taken a regressive step as this law severely restricts our freedom of expression and our freedom of religion or belief," said Pastor Tanka Subedi, founding member and chair of Dharmik Chautari Nepal and Religious Liberty Forum Nepal (RLF).
The bill, which was passed by the Nepali parliament on Aug. 8, was signed on 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. CSW, a human rights group accredited with United Nations consultative status, noted that it would be the first time that Nepal would hold such a role when it starts its term in office on Jan. 1, 2018.
The legislation is one of several measures that have been drafted to reform the country's penal code in line with its constitution, which stipulates that "Sanatana Dharma" (Hindu faith) will be protected by the state. Article 26 (3) of Nepal's constitution places a restriction on religious conversion and the free expression of one's religion.
There had been concerns that Clause 160 in Section 9 of the legislation, the portion that bans religious conversions, could be used to limit a wide variety of religious expression and belief. Some have feared that the clause could also be used to claim that charitable activities of religious groups or people speaking about their faith as attempts at conversion.
The passage of the bill came just as states in neighboring India have passed measures that outlaw religious conversions.
"We have seen how anti conversion laws in India and blasphemy laws in Pakistan are used to fuel religious tension and target religious minorities," CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a statement.
"Article 26(3) of the Nepali constitution has already been used in this way, as seen in the case of eight Christians in Charikot, who were charged with forcible conversion after distributing Christian comic booklets," he added.
Thomas urged Nepal's government to overturn the new law and amend Article 26 of the constitution, saying they both curtail the right to freedom of religion or belief and undermine the country's commitments under international law.