KATHMANDU, NEPAL (BosNewsLife)– Four Christians are behind bars in Nepal for allegedly converting people to Christianity as part of an apparent government-led crackdown on evangelism in the landlocked Himalayan nation, activists say.
Nepalese security forces arrested two men and two women early Tuesday, April 23, at their hotel in the city of Ghorahi in Nepal’s Dang Deukhuri District, Christians said.
The detainees, who could face lengthy prison terms, were identified as Dilli Ram Paudel, the general secretary of the Nepal Christian Society; Gaurav Sreevastab, an Indian national; an unnamed U.S. citizen and Kusang Tamang, their Nepali interpreter.
Their Bibles and other personal belongings, including cash and laptops, were reportedly confiscated by police.
Advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said the group had attended a one-day Christian conference for pastors on Monday, April 22, held at a local church, with some 70 other believers.
CSW quotes its sources as saying that the four have not been charged yet but remain in police custody.
“However, if a charge is registered, it would be under Section 158 of Penal Code, a law which came into force in August 2018 and which criminalizes proselytizing and conversion,” CSW warned in a statement to BosNewsLife.
“Conviction carries a custodial sentence of up to five years and a fine not exceeding fifty thousand rupees (some $440).” Where a foreigner is involved, the person faces deportation within seven days after completing the prison sentence, the group added.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas told BosNewsLife in a statement that his group had urged Nepal “to respect the right of all religious minorities to practice their faith or belief through worship, observation, teaching, and practice.”
Therefore, he said, “We call on the police to drop all charges against these Christians and to release them immediately.”
Thomas argued that current Nepalese legislation “emboldens both state and non-state actors to harass and prosecute innocent people who are simply exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief.”
It comes amid growing pressure on Christians who comprise over 1 percent of the mainly Hindu population of nearly 30 million people, according to official estimates.
Open Doors, a Christian relief and advocacy group, says that “most of the persecution of Christians comes from Hindu radical groups” who want to turn Nepal into a Hindu state again. “These radical Hindu groups have close ties with Hindutva groups in neighboring India.”
Previously, persecution wasn’t supported openly by the government, but since 2015 a new constitution has been adopted, limiting freedom of religion, according to an Open Doors assessment about the situation in the country.
“On August 8, 2017, the Nepalese parliament also passed anti-conversion legislation which was signed into law by the president on October 16, 2017.”
Adding to difficulties is evidence that Christians do not receive legal recognition of their churches in Nepal, experts say. Authorities register church property in the name of private persons only.
Christians also say that since the massive earthquake in April 2015 the government supported rebuilding temples, mosques, and Buddhist shrines but not churches in an apparent illustration of bias against Christianity.
There was no immediate response of authorities to the latest reported detention of Christians. However, experts said the policy seems to contradict Nepal’s pledged intentions as it has been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council since 2018.
The country promised to promote and protect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, CSW noted. Nepal also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
CSW complained using “draconian laws such as Section 158” of the penal code to limit religious and other rights led to an increase in attacks against Christians and other religious minorities in recent years, and many Christians have been “living in fear of practicing their faith freely.”