If Nepal is declared to be secular


Legal situation on religious freedom and its actual application

With an overwhelming majority (507 votes out of 601), the Constituent Assembly of Nepal passed a new constitution on September 16, 2015. This confirms the secular character of the Nepalese institutions. At the same time, it severely restricts religious freedom, including the freedom to change religion.1

In article 4, paragraph 1, the new constitution stipulates: "Nepal is an independent, indivisible, sovereign and secular state."2 And further: "'Secular' means in the sense of this article the protection of religious and cultural customs that have been practiced since ancient times, as well as freedom of religion and culture."

State secularism had already been introduced in the former Hindu monarchy in 2007 - one year after its abolition and the end of a decade-long civil war between government forces and Maoist guerrillas. However, due to considerable pressure from pro-Hindu parties and numerous other problems, no agreement could subsequently be reached within the constituent assembly for a long period of time. The actual form of the future Nepalese institutions was therefore unclear for a long time. It was only after the earthquake of April 25, 2015 that the main parliamentary parties were able to come to an agreement under popular pressure in August 2015 and end the crippling state in which the country had been for almost 10 years. In the run-up to September 16, 2015, the parliamentarians voted on the various articles of the future constitution. The motion of a Hindu party to declare Nepal a "Hindu state" was rejected by a clear two-thirds majority.

Leaders of the Catholic Church in Nepal, which has almost 8,000 believers, welcomed this result of the vote. Father Silas Bogati, Vicar General of the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal, said: “Secularism is not just a question of religion. It is a value that makes freedom of belief and equal treatment of all faiths possible. ”With the vote, the constituent assembly of Nepal shows that not one religion is preferred at the expense of another.3

Samim Ansari, coordinator of the Muslim interest group National Muslim Struggle Alliance, saw the vote as the culmination of a long struggle by religious minorities for equality with the overwhelming Hindu majority. The Muslim leader believes that "every citizen's religious freedom must be protected"4. According to the 2011 census, 4.4 percent of the population is Muslim.

The Hindu parties saw things very differently. Responsible for the change proposal mentioned above was the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, the fourth largest political party in the Constituent Assembly of Nepal. On the day of the vote, Hindu activists demonstrated in front of parliament to put pressure on the MPs. At the end of the vote, Madhav Bhattarai, chairman of the Nepalese branch of the Indian Hindu organization, said Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (Hindu Revitalization Committee) that the MPs vote "offended the feelings [of the Hindu majority of Nepalese people]". “Nepal missed the chance to become the only Hindu state on the planet. This decision contradicts our identity ",5 added the representative of the Hindu faith community.

The entire debate was fraught with tension and violence.6 In the weeks before the vote, more than 40 people died in clashes between security forces and demonstrators against the new constitution. The incident aroused, among other things, the anger of the Madhesi ethnic minority, who did not see themselves adequately represented by the politicians involved in the debate.

Although the assurance of secularism is welcomed by representatives of religious minorities, certain legal provisions in the new constitution give cause for concern. That’s about the Sanatana Dharma, the "eternal order" (the Hindus' own name for their religion) under the special protection of the law. Article 9 (3) of the constitution, which deals with the question of the national anthem, among other things, also confirms that the cow, which is considered sacred in Hinduism, is the national animal of Nepal.

Article 26 of the constitution also caused displeasure. In July 2015, Father Silas Bogati described him as "dangerous": In paragraph 1, freedom of religion is declared a fundamental right. Paragraph 2 guarantees religious communities the unhindered exercise of religious services. Paragraph 3 then stipulates that “[...] no one [...] may convert another to another religion or disturb other people in their faith. Such an act is punishable. "

Many Nepalese politicians criticize that this passage in the constitution legitimizes nationalist groups that are campaigning for a return of the Hindu monarchy.7 Narayan Kaji Shrestha, deputy of the Maoist who lost in the November 2013 elections Unified Communist Party of Nepal, However, which is the third largest political party in the constituent assembly with 82 MPs, said: "This form of secularism, on which the main political parties have agreed, is a pure negation of the secularism for which we stand."8

The concern that the secular character of the Nepalese state is on feet of clay has been intensified by recent events: For example, more than 160 years after the “Muuki Ain” criminal law came into force, the parliament passed a new law on August 8, 2017, which refers to important parts of the new constitution of Nepal. Among other things, this criminalizes the “violation of religious feelings”. In future, such cases can be punished with up to two years in prison and a fine of 2,000 rupees (around CHF 17). Article 9.158 of the Criminal Code prohibits attempts to “convert” others or “the religion, belief or beliefs that have existed since ancient times (sanatan) practiced by a community, caste or ethnic group ”. The penalty for these offenses is up to five years in prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees (just under CHF 450).9 The law, signed by the Nepalese President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, came into force on October 16, 2017.

In 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa had assured that the proposed changes to the penal code were not a violation of religious freedom. A public hearing on the planned amendment to the criminal law took place in parliament in February 2016. According to Christian Nepalese officials, more than 45,000 written statements were submitted, but they were not taken into account. Buddhist and Muslim organizations, as well as associations of the Kirati minority living in the Himalayas, also voiced their concerns, but these were also reportedly not taken into account.10

Pastor Tanka Subedi warned that there is a narrative among some Hindu leaders that secularism is a "Trojan horse" used by Christians in Nepal to subvert the country's Hindu institutions.11

In addition to the constitution and the criminal code, there are other laws and regulations in Nepal that discriminate against non-Hindus. According to current law, Hindu organizations have a much easier time gaining legal recognition than institutions of other faiths. This is expressed e.g. B. in the acquisition of real estate for institutional purposes, which poses difficulties for many non-Hindu organizations. Marrying couples of different faiths is also difficult, albeit for socio-cultural reasons. Christians also repeatedly complain about the major problems in acquiring land to build or expand cemeteries.

Even if the earthquake of April 25, 2015 cannot be directly assessed as an "incident" in the sense of this report, its effects were so great that it also affected the development of human rights, including freedom of religion, as described in the section "Incidents" is performed. In the series of earthquakes, the epicenter of which was not far from the capital Kathmandu, around 9,000 people were killed and 600,000 buildings damaged or destroyed.12 



After the vote on the new constitution, the most serious incident with regard to religious freedom occurred on June 9, 2016: At a Christian school, the majority of which were students from other faith communities, seven men and one woman were arrested for reading a brochure about Jesus Christ distributed. The arrested came to Nepal as part of an aid program for earthquake victims. The police accused them of attempting to convert the children to the Christian faith. The development workers rejected these allegations - their only goal was to help the children. The arrests sparked great outrage in Nepal. Just a few days earlier, the Kathmandu authorities had announced that all Christian institutions in which orphans and children lived would be fined or even closed if Christian books were discovered there. However, the eight arrested Christians were acquitted of all charges in early December 2016.13

Another incident involving the Catholic Church occurred on April 18, 2017: the presbytery of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Kathmandu was partially damaged in an arson attack. Even if the damage was less than initially feared, the fire could have been fatal. The police are investigating the case. The arson attack occurred a few weeks before the local elections on May 14 and June 14, which were an important step ahead of the general election in January 2018. Former pastor of the cathedral, Silas Bogati, said: “We are very concerned. Since there is no evidence whatsoever of the identity of the arsonists, we do not know whether it is a personal attack or a politically motivated action by an organization. "14

On April 4, 2016, the government of Nepal announced that Christmas would no longer be a public holiday. In his statement, Interior Minister Shakti Basnet said: “In order to put a stop to the increase in the number of days off, we are forced to make this decision. This measure is in no way directed against Christians. "15 Christmas was only declared a public holiday in 2008 after the world's only 240-year-old Hindu monarchy was abolished. The monarchy was replaced by a secular state.16

Christians argued that there were 83 days off or public holidays in the country according to the Hindu calendar - and that another day to celebrate Christmas wouldn't make much difference. Nonetheless, the government stuck to its decision, stating that Christmas would remain a day off for Christian civil servants.

The Christian Association National Federation of Christians in Nepal declared: "The government wants to restrict the rights and religious freedom of minorities."17 In addition, the Christians argued that the authorities should focus on rebuilding the country after the April 2015 earthquake rather than abolishing Christmas as a public holiday.

In May 2018, four churches were attacked within five days. Nobody was injured in the process and so far nobody has confessed to the attacks. Arson attacks were carried out on three of the churches - Hebron Church in Hilihang rural parish in Panchtar (May 9), Emmanuel Church in Doti (May 10), and Emmanuel Church in Kanchapur (May 11) - the fourth, Mahima Church in Dhangadhi, was partially destroyed in a bomb attack on May 13th.18 The police blame the biplab Maoists for the attacks. At the same time, however, local sources point to a Hindu extremist group that had been exposed to threats in the weeks prior to the attacks. The trigger for this was the arrest of six Christians in the Teherathrum district in eastern Nepal, who are charged with evangelism. Two of them were arrested on May 9th after singing worship songs in the street, and the other four were arrested at home.19


Perspectives for Religious Freedom

Wedged in between the two giants India and China in the Himalayas, Nepal is currently experiencing a time of fundamental upheaval. As a melting pot with 125 ethnic groups, Nepal has built itself a republican and federal structure. Nevertheless, there can be no talk of stability in the seven provinces. Last but not least, Hindu groups contribute to the tension. Religious minorities will no doubt monitor closely how the new criminal law is applied and whether religious freedom can be maintained in their country.

  1. "The country adopts a Constitution strongly restricting religious freedom", Eglises d'Asie, September 17, 2015, eglasie.mepasie.org/asie-du-sud/nepal/2015-09-17-le-pays-se-dote- d2019une-constitution-a-la-fois-laique-et-restreignant-fortement-la-liberte-religieuse, (accessed April 9, 2018).
  2. For information on the constitutional text see: www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Nepal_2015.pdf
  3. "The country adopts a Constitution strongly restricting religious freedom", Eglises d'Asie, September 17, 2015, eglasie.mepasie.org/asie-du-sud/nepal/2015-09-17-le-pays-se-dote- d2019une-constitution-a-la-fois-laique-et-restreignant-fortement-la-liberte-religieuse, (accessed April 9, 2018).
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, was to visit Nepal on his trip to South Asia from September 15 to 19, 2015. In particular, the closeness and solidarity of the Catholic Church with the earthquake victims of April 25 should be affirmed. However, the visit was canceled - officially for security reasons. In fact, his arrival in Kathmandu could have been understood and condemned by Hindu extremists as a maneuver by the Holy See against the reintroduction of Hinduism as the state religion.
  7. "The government tries to reassure the Christians on the secularity of the future Constitution", Eglises d'Asie, October 8, 2012, eglasie.mepasie.org/asie-du-sud/nepal/2012-10-08-le-gouvernement -tente-de-rassurer-les-chretiens-sur-la-laicite-de-la-future-constitution, (accessed April 9, 2018)
  8. "The country adopts a Constitution strongly restricting religious freedom", Eglises d'Asie, September 17, 2015, eglasie.mepasie.org/asie-du-sud/nepal/2015-09-17-le-pays-se-dote- d2019une-constitution-a-la-fois-laique-et-restreignant-fortement-la-liberte-religieuse, (accessed April 9, 2018).
  9. "Nepal's Protection of Religious Freedom on Downward Spiral", Ewelina U. Ochab, Forbes, February 7, 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2018/02/07/nepals-protection-of-religious-freedom-on -downward-spiral /, (accessed April 9, 2018)
  10. "Nepal criminalizes religious conversion under new law", Prakash Khadka, Ucanews, September 5, 2017, www.ucanews.com/news/nepal-criminalizes-religious-conversion-under-new-law/80143, (accessed April 9 2018)
  11. "Nepal Criminalizes Christian Conversion and Evangelism", Kate Shellnut, Christianity Today, October 25, 2017, www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/october/nepal-criminalizes-conversion-christianity-evangelism-hindu.html, (accessed September 9, 2017) April 2018)
  12. "Nepal earthquake of 2015", John P Rafferty, Encyclopaedia Britannica, April 18, 2018 www.itannica.com/topic/Nepal-earthquake-of-2015 (accessed June 10, 2018)
  13. "UPDATE First religious freedom case under new Nepal constitution: all charges dropped", WorldWatch Monitor, December 6, 2016, www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2016/12/update-first-religious-freedom-case-under-new-nepal- constitution-all-charges-dropped /, (accessed April 9, 2018)
  14. “Concern of the small Catholic community ahead of local elections”, Eglises d'Asie, April 25, 2017, eglasie.mepasie.org/asie-du-sud/nepal/2017-04-25-inquietude-de-la-petite -communaute-catholique-a-l2019approche-des-elections-locales, (accessed April 9, 2018)
  15. "Christians threaten to protest after Nepal 'cancels Christmas", Florence Taylor, Christian Today, April 7, 2016, www.christiantoday.com/article/christians.threaten.to.protest.after.nepal.cancels.christmas/83519.htm , (accessed April 9, 2018)
  16. “Christmas and Eid al-Fitr become holidays”, Eglises d'Asie, January 16, 2008, eglasie.mepasie.org/asie-du-sud/nepal/2008-01-16-noel-et-l2019id-al-fitr -deviennent-jours-feries /, (accessed April 9, 2018)
  17. "Christians see red as Xmas holiday scrapped," The Himalayan, Jan.April 2016, thehimalayantimes.com/kathmandu/christians-see-red-as-xmas-holiday-scrapped/, (accessed April 9, 2018)
  18. "Nepal four churches targeted in arson attacks", Christian Solidarity Worldwide, May 16, 2018, www.csw.org.uk/2018/05/16/news/3975/article.htm (accessed June 10, 2018)
  19. "Christians in Nepal Suspect Hindu Extremists in Sudden Attacks on Churches", Morning Star, May 22, 2018 christiannews.net/2018/05/22/christians-in-nepal-suspect-hindu-extremists-in-sudden-attacks-on -churches / (accessed June 10, 2018)