“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”Article 18, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Three years on from the date that Nepal adopted its new constitution, there are concerns about its ‘anti-conversion’ clause, which seemed designed to specifically protect Hinduism at the expense of other religions.
The clause, in Article 26 (3) of the constitution, states:
“No person shall, in the exercise of the right conferred by this Article, do, or cause to be done, any act which may be contrary to public health, decency and morality or breach public peace, or convert another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardize other’s religion and such act shall be punishable by law.”
These provisions were strengthened in the Penal Code 2017 which came into force in August 2018. Section 158 states that “No person shall convert any one from one religion to another or make attempt to or abet such conversion” and carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to fifty thousand rupees.
The criminalisation of conversion is a direct infringement on freedom of religion or belief as it robs individuals of the right to change their religion. These provisions also threaten the right to freedom of expression as they could be used to prohibit a range of legitimate expressions of religion or belief such as charitable activities or speaking about one’s faith.
Fuelling religious intolerance
Similar laws exist in Burma and several states in India, where they have been abused to foster social intolerance and violence towards peaceful religious activities. Recent events appear to confirm initial fears that the laws would have the same effect in Nepal.
For example, in May 2018 four Christian churches were set on fire and one was bombed in just over a week. No-one was killed in the attacks, but these incidents illustrate a worrying increase in hostilities towards Christian groups in Nepal, and suggest that religious intolerance is increasing in the country.
Another indicator of increased religious intolerance in Nepal is the cancellation of December 25th as a public holiday by the Nepalese government. Now, only Christian civil servants are given a Christmas holiday. The decision to cancel this public holiday is considered the result of strong anti-Christian tendencies; the fact that the government gave in to these pressures illuminates the extent to which such tendencies are becoming more prevalent in Nepal.
Nepal has already seen several cases which demonstrate the ease with which the constitution’s anti-conversion laws can be misused.
In June 2016, Article 26(3) was used to charge eight Christians in Charikot with attempting to convert children through distributing a comic book on the story of Jesus. While the accused were acquitted of all charges in December 2016, the Religious Liberty Forum Nepal have since documented multiple similar cases which have taken place this year, these include:
- Sonia Chanda Thakuri, arrested along with her six month-old baby on 22 March after being falsely accused with attempting religious conversion and destroying Hindu idols. Sonia has since been released, but her case remains ongoing.
- Devi Rai, arrested with her friends in Chitwan on 30 April and accused of attempting to convert a Hindu family and encouraging them to destroy the Hindu idols. They were reportedly released a few days after the arrest.
- Sumitra Gauli, Radhika Maharjan and Phuldevi Bhattarai, arrested in their church in Kathmandu on 8 May, falsely accused of attempted religious conversion.
- Bhim Br. Pradhan and Nabin Kumar Mandal, arrested in Morang on 19 May for presenting Christian materials on a laptop. They are accused of speaking against Hindu gods and attempted conversion.
It is clear from the above cases that the anti-conversion laws can be used to make false accusations against anyone, which makes them highly vulnerable to misinterpretation and misuse for personal vendettas.
The cases also appear to suggest that the criminalisation of conversion is specifically designed to protect Hinduism.
Although Article 4 (1) of the constitution claims that Nepal is a secular state, the word secular is defined as the “protection of religion and culture being practised since ancient times and religious and cultural freedom,” which has been interpreted as affording special position to Hinduism. The constitution also stipulates that ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (the Hindu faith) will be protected by the state
This continues a long-standing history of protection of Hinduism in Nepal. In a famous case long before the new constitution was introduced, Christian pastor Charles Mendes was charged with “creating a disturbance to Hinduism” by distributing pamphlets about Christianity and eventually sentenced to six years in prison.
It is important to note that not all Hindus benefit from the anti-conversion laws. The Dalit minority group face severe discrimination in the Hindu caste system, many Dalits therefore change their religion in order to escape this. By prohibiting this practice the anti-conversion laws essentially lock Dalits and other minority groups into positions of subordination within the caste system.
Falling foul of international law
Nepal has made several national and international commitments to uphold and implement acts that will protect fundamental human rights. The country ratified the ICCPR in 1991, which it followed by introducing a national law, the Nepal Act, to fulfil its obligations. The Covenant is legally binding, and Articles 18 and 19 guarantee the right to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression respectively. By undermining these two fundamental rights, Nepal’s anti-conversion laws mean that the country falls short of its obligations under the ICCPR.
Nepal has also been elected to be a member of the HRC from 2018 to 2020, which makes these contraventions of international human rights law even more striking. As the country is now supposedly responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, it must first prioritise the promotion and protection of such rights within its own borders.
Under Nepal’s last Universal Periodic Review Cycle in November 2015, the government chose not to accept recommendations from both the USA and Spain relating to the amendment of the constitution, in order to ensure that freedom of religion or belief was fully upheld.
The misuse of the anti-conversion laws observed in subsequent years demonstrate that this cannot continue: Nepal must amend Article 26(3) of the constitution to prohibit only forceful conversion, and remove any clause prohibiting conversion in and of itself.
As a secular republic, Nepal now has the opportunity to achieve remarkable political, economic and social transformation since it attained ‘independence’ from a Hindu monarchy that ruled for over 200 years. To do so, it must not succumb to policies and practices that pave the way for polarisation of the country’s cultural and religious diversity.
Tomorrow, the European Parliament sub-committee on human rights (DROI) will meet to discuss a draft resolution on EU Guidelines on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and the mandate of the Special Envoy on the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. It’s a significant milestone, representing the culmination of a year-long reflection within the European institutions on how the EU could more effectively promote and protect FoRB in its foreign policy and external action.
It’s also a document to watch: the recommendations that Parliament chooses to put forward in this resolution are likely to play a key role in shaping the future direction of EU policy on FoRB.
Father Aloysius Widyawan opened the door of an upstairs room in the Santa Maria Tak Bercela Catholic Church. “Three months ago, this room was completely filled with blood, body parts, teeth, even the faces of the bombers, strewn by the force of the blast,” he told me.
He pointed out windows that had been blown out, and the icons of St Luke and St John, damaged but not destroyed. He told me about the two young Catholic boys, Evan and Nathan, aged 12 and eight, who died as a result of their injuries. They had been baptized only two years before and had just received their first Communion. He described the Muslim security guard who lost both eyes and legs in the explosion, and later told the priest: “Please forgive me because I was not able to protect the church and the people, and am unable to work again.” Six people were killed and more than 30 injured in that one church alone.
On 25 August last year, the Burma army unleashed its attack on the Rohingya people of northern Rakhine state, precipitating the country’s most severe human rights and humanitarian crisis since independence in 1949. The United Nations’ outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described this crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned of “the hallmarks of genocide”. After the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica the world lamented with the words: “Never again”. But a year ago in Burma, “never again” happened all over again.
“They made it impossible for us to stay – how could we survive?”
In March this year, I travelled to the refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, to meet survivors. Almost everyone I talked to had seen loved ones killed and villages burned. Accounts of mass rape were widespread. I met Rohingyas whose eyes had been shot out and limbs blown off, and heard of others whose eyes had been gouged out, throats slit and limbs hacked off.
In 2008, the Christians of Kandhamal District in Odisha state in India experienced the most severe outbreak of anti-Christian violence in the country’s history. The attacks claimed over 100 lives, forced 56,000 people to flee their homes and saw the destruction of 5,600 homes and 300 churches. Father Ajaya Kumar Singh, a survivor of the tragedy in Kandhamal, sought to equip himself with the ability to advocate for fellow survivors following the attacks, and has campaigned tirelessly for compensation and justice.
On the 10th anniversary since the outbreak of the attacks, Father Ajaya spoke to CSW about the current situation in Kandhamal, and about what can be done by both the government of India and the international community to help bring justice, and to ensure that an event like the one which took place in Kandhamal never happens again.
The Arab Spring reignited a debate within the Middle East and in academic circles about the universality of human rights and their compatibility, or incompatibility, with culture and religion. Although the Arab Spring was marked by the rise of Political Islam movements, it also opened the door to discussions on topics that had long been taboo, such as sectarianism, racism and gender equality in the Arab world.
Religion has dominated politics in the Middle East for centuries, and plays a significant role in the lives of individuals: their rights, opportunities and social status are all impacted by it.
Constitutions, laws, education systems and even art and sport are viewed through the lens of religion, and every effort is made to ensure that these elements of society comply with religious norms and symbolism.
Sectarianism remains a powerful political, social and cultural force, and the source of most conflicts in the Middle East. Many of the current conflicts in the region have deep historical roots – most notably the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shi’a division.
A thick layer of dust coats everything inside the Eritrean embassy in the Ethiopian capital, which was unlocked this week for the first time since 1998. Photos of this ‘time capsule’ were published by the BBC, which, along with the world’s media, is charting the remarkable thaw in relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two nations went to war in 1998 but maintained a war footing due to Ethiopia’s refusal to allow demarcation of their common border, in accordance with a 2003 ruling.
CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer reflects on the island where things are supposed to changing politically, but in many ways stay the same.
Visitor numbers are soaring, with over 2 million tourists arriving in Cuba each year. And why wouldn’t they be? Historic Havana, churches, cigar factories, vintage cars, live music, art galleries and museums, UNESCO heritage sites, beautiful beaches and the warm climate all make for the perfect holiday destination.
Cuba, a land where you can experience the past, in the present. When people think of Cuba, isn’t this what comes to mind?
But much of the world remains unaware that travelling off the beaten path leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth. In a country with some of the most hospitable and generous people you will ever meet, you will also find that many live on less than $2 a day – and for a number of reasons, the exact figure of those living in poverty is hard to ascertain.
Outside the capital most people cannot afford the comfortable luxury of a Chevrolet and many get around by horse and carriage or ‘cogiendo botella’; in other words, they hitch a ride with whoever is passing by. And whilst a horse and carriage may make for a true Cuban experience and a good photo opportunity, it is also symbolic of a time warp that isn’t so positive for its citizens.
It has been two months since Persia Jacob was repeatedly kicked in the face when she resisted a mob of Hindu extremists who tried to snatch her Bible away from her. She wakes up with a heavy head every morning, having to take medication to relieve her of the trauma, even if temporarily, so that she can get on with her day.
The 38 year-old Christian remained persistent that she would die and couldn’t be without the Bible as they pushed and slapped her, stripping off her saree as they tried to grab it [the copy of Bible] from her. The Bible was then set ablaze along with several other copies of Christian literature.
As well as attempting to force her to convert to Hinduism, the mob of men raided four other prayer halls in Madurai District of Tamil Nadu state, as Christians gathered for Sunday worship.
Just over a week ago, US President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-Un, leader of the world’s most repressive regime which has been accused by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry of “crimes against humanity”. It was historic – the first time a sitting American President and a North Korean dictator had met face-to-face.
On the surface, in words attributed to Winston Churchill, “jaw jaw” has to be better than “war war”. It is good that the two men have moved from talk of “fire and fury” and whose nuclear button is bigger to discussion of denuclearisation, peace and prosperity. Perhaps a new era may be dawning.
However, one very fundamental issue seemed to be missing from the agenda: the human rights of the people of North Korea.