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People from three faiths mourn murdered priest

Father Johnson Prakash Moyalan of Kerala state called Nepal ’s first martyr for Christ.

7/8/08 Nepal (Compass Direct News) – More than 1,000 people, including Hindus and Muslims, gathered in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal state in India , on Friday (July 4) for the burial of a Catholic priest murdered last week by Hindu extremists in Nepal .

Father Johnson Prakash Moyalan, who belonged to the religious order of Salesians of Don Bosco, was from India ’s Kerala state. He was shot in the chest and stomach by a group of masked men in the Salesian mission complex in Dharan near the south Nepalese town of Sirsia, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the India-Nepal border, at 1 a.m. on July 1.

Salesian provincial secretary in Kolkata, Father Antony Earathara, told Compass that the 60-year-old Fr. Moyalan was Nepal ’s first martyr for Christ.

“The Salesian was killed by Hindu extremists belonging to an obscure group, the Nepal Defense Army, which left some pamphlets saying Nepal should be made a Hindu state again and that it was training Hindu suicide squads to achieve its mission,” Fr. Earathara said. He added that nothing was missing from the priest’s room and therefore robbery was not a motive.

The news of the killing of Fr. Moyalan, who was working in Nepal since 1996 for the uplift of “lower caste” Hindus, shocked the Christian community in both Nepal and India .

“The tragic killing of Fr. Moyalan is indeed shocking,” Father George Plathottam, head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s Commission for Social Communications, told Compass. “He had left his home and people and chose to spend his life and energy to work for the uplift of the people of Nepal . He was impelled by the love of Christ to serve people and to consider all his brothers and sisters.”

Fr. Plathottam added that it was unfortunate that the extremists chose to kill “a man like him who had given his life in dedicated service of the people.”

“I believe, like his Master Christ, Johnson has forgiven his assassins,” he said. “I also hope that people everywhere show respect and safeguard those who have given their lives to serve others.”

Although Nepal officially ceased to be the world’s only nation with Hinduism as its official religion due to a strong democracy movement in 2006, local Christians say religious freedom remains a distant reality.

“Maoists have now come into power in Nepal , and they have declared it a secular state,” Samuel Rai, a local Christian leader told Compass. “Secular means no religion. There is little religious freedom. I fear that the Maoists too may start persecuting Christians soon.”

Prospects for Religious Freedom

Nepal ’s Interim Constitution, promulgated in January 2007, claims to provide for freedom to practice one’s religion but denies the right to convert another person.

A Kathmandu-based Nepalese journalist, Sudeshna Sarkar, told Compass that the growing influence of Western governments in Nepal had helped Christian organizations reach a better footing and would keep attacks by Hindu extremists at bay, “if the latter are really powerful and organized enough to try to carry out their threats.”

“Hindu extremists have little support or power in Nepal, and the defeat of King Gyanendra in the April election and victory of the Maoists, who profess to be atheists, prove that,” she added.

Sarkar also said Fr. Moyalan’s murder should be seen mainly in light of increasing lawlessness in the Terai plains.

“Dozens of armed groups have been active in Terai since the fall of King Gyanendra’s government in 2006, and extortion threats target soft victims, who would not be able to retaliate,” she said. “The church is regarded as a soft target – so are businessmen, banks, school teachers and government officials. In the last month, people from all these categories have faced abduction and death threats.”

Since Nepal’s parliament declared the former Himalayan kingdom a secular state, the government has been trying to show the same consideration to different religious denominations, including Christianity, she said.

“From December 25, 2007, Christmas began to be observed as a state holiday, and high officials, including Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, have been attending Christian programs as special guests,” she added.

Nepal is the world’s newest republic. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, won a national election on April 10 and is trying to form a coalition government. The victory of Maoists led to the fall of the monarchy, which reigned for over 240 years, and removal of the king. The country is now a federal democratic state.

Nearly 81 percent of Nepal’s population is Hindu, with a considerable number of Buddhists. It is estimated that there are around 800,000 Christians in the Himalayan country, which has a population of around 28 million.

Hindu extremist groups in India, mainly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), are believed to be supporting the movement in Nepal to restore Hinduism as the state religion.