Uncertainty for Religious Minorities as Nepal Celebrates First Anniversary of its Constitution.

Notes to Editors: The eight Christians in Charikot, eastern Nepal were acquitted of all charges on 6 December 2016

“For the last two years we have been unsure about how long the doors will be open for us to practise our faith freely. We were not expecting this level of harassment”. Tanka Subedi, Christian leader and human rights defender, Kathmandu, Nepal

On 21 September, eight Christians in Charikot, eastern Nepal will attend their next (and possibly final) court hearing – one day after Nepal marks the first anniversary of the promulgation of its long awaited constitution. They all face charges of attempting to convert children to Christianity through the distribution of a comic book which explains the story of Jesus.

Bimal Shahi, Prakash Pradhan and Shakti Pakhrin of the Charikot group spent together 9 days in jail accused of illegal conversation because of the distribution of a small pamphlet "The Great story" with the story of Jesus explained for children
Bimal Shahi, Prakash Pradhan and Shakti Pakhrin from Charikot holding copies of “The Great Story”comic book. Photo Credit: Giulio Paletta/CSW 2016, Nepal

The arrests took place in June 2016, following two trauma counselling sessions organised by Teach Nepal, a Kathmandu-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). The sessions sought to address the psychological needs of children affected by the earthquakes that hit Nepal in April 2015 and were held on 8 and 9 June in two schools in Charikot: Modern Nepal School and Mount Valley Academy. When they finished, the organisers distributed a small gift pack to the children, which included a handkerchief and a 23-page comic book entitled The Great Story.

On their way back to Kathmandu, five Teach Nepal staff were stopped by the police. Their car was searched and a Bible was found in the car. The Bible was used as evidence by the police to arrest and later accuse them of attempting to forcefully convert children to Christianity. In both schools, the children who attended these sessions came from diverse faith backgrounds; no religious teaching or prayers took place during the counselling sessions and none of the children were forced to take this gift. The principals of the two schools, who authorised the sessions in their schools, and a pastor who was acting as a contact between the schools and the NGO, were also arrested.

Seven of the eight arrested in Charikot (all in handcuffs except for Ms. Banita Dangol).

Seven of the accused – Mr Prakash Pradhan (principal, Mount Valley Academy), Mr Bimal Shahi (principal, Modern Nepal School), Ms Banita Dangol (Teach Nepal staff), Mr Balkrishna Rai (Teach Nepal staff), Mr Philip Tamang (Teach Nepal staff), Mr Kiran Dahal (Teach Nepal staff) and Mr Bhimsen Tiwari (Teach Nepal staff) – were arrested on 9 June 2016. Mr Shakti Pakhrin (pastor, Charikot Christian Church) was arrested on 14 June 2016.

Impact of New Constitution on Charikot Case

The right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is of particular importance in Nepal as the country recently made the transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democratic republic. In 2008, after a ten-year long conflict from 1996 to 2006, Nepal, which was formerly the only official Hindu state in the world, was declared a secular republic. The case of the eight Christians in Charikot is of national importance to Nepal as it will set a precedent for future cases.

The charge sheet they were served by the police is thought to be the first in the nation’s history in which Article 26 (3) of the newly promulgated constitution was quoted. This clause states: No person shall, in the exercise of the right conferred by this Article…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.

As Pastor Tanka Subedi recently told CSW, “The case of Charikot Christians sends a concerning message to Christians in Nepal. Even though the laws have an impact on all religious minorities and restrict the freedom of religion or belief for all Nepalis, this legislation seems to particularly target the Christians in Nepal […] I always have a Bible or other Christian books in my car – which I often distribute. If the current culture of discrimination against us continues, this might be enough for the police to stop me anytime and accuse me of trying to convert others given that my fellow Christians in the Charikot incident were arrested by the police and the Bible in their possession was used as evidence in their case.”

“The right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is of particular importance in Nepal as the country recently made the transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democratic republic.”

Provisions for FoRB in Nepal

The Constituent Assembly of Nepal, created in 2008, had the dual role of drafting the new constitution and functioning as an interim legislature.  It was tasked with “creating a political system that fully complies with universally accepted fundamental human rights”. The framing of the constitution was governed by Nepal’s Treaty Act of 1991, which required the nation’s laws to conform to the principles of the International Treaties it has signed and ratified such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his or her choice.

In the interim years, when the constitution was being drafted, and especially just before it was promulgated last year, there were strident calls from the Rashtriya Prachathantra Party Nepal (RPPN) to remove the word ‘secular’ from the draft constitution; to restore Nepal to a Hindu monarchy and to ban religious conversion. These calls were met with opposition by several groups including the interfaith platform Dharmik Chautari, who campaigned for secularism and religious freedom to be upheld in the constitution for people of all faiths and none.

The freedom to choose and change one’s faith is a fundamental right which must be upheld as an essential part of any constitution which adheres to international human rights principles. While there has been partial success in achieving this – the new constitution states in its preamble that Nepal is a “secular, inclusive, democratic” state – it goes on to define the word secular as “including protection of religion, culture handed down from the time immemorial”; a definition which remains problematic for religious minorities in the country. The phrase in the original Nepali text for ‘religion, culture handed down time immemorial’ is ‘Sanatana Dharma’, which is traditionally used to refer to the Hindu faith.

The provision for the Hindu faith to be protected by the State, in addition to the restriction on religious conversion and the free expression of one’s faith (Article 26), remains problematic. Similar anti-conversion laws currently in force in five states in neighbouring India have been misused to foster social intolerance and violence towards peaceful religious activities and to falsely accuse religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, of forcefully converting others.

Amending Article 26 of Nepal’s constitution to fully guarantee freedom or religion or belief for all is the first step in stemming any fear, hatred or violence between religious communities and in ensuring that religious minorities in Nepal are not left feeling alienated and discriminated against.

 By CSW’s Nepal Advocacy Officer