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06/28/2023 Nepal (International Christian Concern) ––An interfaith coalition of civil society leaders gathered earlier this month in Kathmandu to discuss the state of religious freedom in Nepal and collaborate on next steps.  

More than 200 people attended the seminar, including attorneys, human rights defenders, and religious leaders from the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Kirat, and Muslim communities as well Dalits and members of many ethnic minority groups. Members of the Nepalese parliament, representatives from various government agencies dealing with human rights and social issues, attorneys, and officials from all seven of Nepal’s provinces also attended and even spoke. 

Speakers and attendees remarked on the strong turnout and the unusual nature of the event. “This is a historic moment for Nepal,” one organizer told gathered journalists. “Never before have we had such a diverse array of civil society leaders and government officials in the same room to talk about religious freedom in our country.” 

In 2008, after years of pro-democracy stirrings across the country, Nepal officially declared itself a democratic republic, abolishing its 240-year-old monarchy and paving the way for a constitutional government. The constitution, which was ratified in 2015, does contain some language protecting religious freedom, but in vague enough terms to allow a law today that criminalizes proselytization. In addition, social pressure in the more than 80% Hindu country leaves many religious minorities ostracized from their communities and cut off from essential rights and government services. 

Chapter 19 of the Muluki Ain, or general code of Nepal, states that “no one shall propagate any religion in such manner as to undermine the religion of other nor shall cause other to convert his or her religion.” Religious minorities are regularly arrested and charged under this law, which goes beyond its neighbor India’s bans on forcibly converting another to criminalize participation in the act of conversion in any way at all. In Nepal, proselytization carries with it the threat of up to six years in prison and subsequent deportation in the case of foreigners. 

The U.S. Department of State highlighted its concerns with Nepal’s anti-conversion and anti-proselytization laws in a report published just a few weeks before the civil society seminar. “Multiple religious groups in the country,” the report stated, “[continue] to reiterate that the constitutional and criminal code provisions governing religious conversion and proselytism [are] vague and contradictory and [open] the door for prosecution for actions carried out in the normal course of practicing one’s religion.” 

Nepal sent a diplomatic note to the U.S. after the report in protest over another section in which the U.S. lent credibility to a commonly held view that India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party is funding the cause of Hindu nationalism in Nepal. The BJP, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has aggressively promoted Hindu nationalism in India for many years. 

Mukunda Sharma, an organizer of the seminar, said that the government must treat religious freedom as a core human right and urged the Nepalese government to take action against bad actors stirring up animosity between religious groups. “Some extremist groups are targeting minority religious communities using abusive language on various social networks,” Ratopati News quoted Sharma as saying. “They are working to spread hate between religious communities that should exist in peace, tolerance, and co-existence.” 

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