(Morning Star News) – High-caste Hindus who have been harassing a church in Nepal forced it to shut down last week, sources said.
For two months Brahmins, the highest caste from which Hindu priests and teachers are drawn, in western Nepal’s Palpa District had disrupted worship of the Pakhluwa Eternal Life Church in Palpa each week and accused pastor Tufani Bhar of converting villagers, the pastor said.
Church members had abandoned their building and resorted to meeting in homes, but the Brahmins issued threats to anyone found meeting anywhere, including in houses.
“It is shocking that we are not allowed to meet in homes and pray,” the 53-year-old Pastor Bhar told Morning Star News.
Having established the church about nine months ago, Pastor Bhar tried everything possible to preserve the fellowship but was unable to withstand the opposition, he said. Church attendance dwindled from 30 to 15-18 people before disbanding last weekend due to fear.
Pastor Bhar visited a few members secretly on Nov. 3, which was his last visit to Palpa.
“I was too disappointed to see the Christians scared and thus did not go last week, on Nov. 10 [Saturday, the scheduled worship day],” he said. “The Hindu-Brahmins are resorting to every method possible to scare us, threaten us and not let us meet.”
Initially the Brahmins objected to the use of guitar and drums in the church service.
“We resorted to worshipping silently without the use of any instrument,” he said. “But then they objected to the Lord’s Supper that we partake of once a month.”
Prohibited from taking the Lord’s supper, the church began travelling from Palpa to the mother church in Butwal, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) away, to partake of the sacrament each month.
Opposition rose steadily to the point that the Brahmins refused to let the church meet for worship, Pastor Bhar said.
“The chairman of the ward [a smaller unit of the municipality] said that they will not let Christians fellowship,” the pastor said.
Previously there had been no opposition in his 38 years of ministry in Butwal and nearby areas, he said, but Hindu extremist groups from India have influenced Nepal’s Hindus.
“Before there was no persecution, but [Hindu extremist group] Shiv Sena from India has been working among the Nepalese people and radicalizing them,” he said. “They want Nepal to become a Hindu nation, but we have all religions in our country, and not just Hinduism.”
Pastor Bhar started the mother church, Eternal Life Church, eight years ago and had established four branches, including the Pakhluwa Eternal Life Church.
In Gulariya, Bardiya District, authorities arrested a Christian woman from Australia along with four area Christians on Sunday (Nov. 12), according to reports.
Katiya Graham was arrested after someone informed police that she was evangelizing door-to-door with the other four Christians, Pastor Hari Prasad Regmi told Morning Star News.
Local media reported that she was charged with spreading Christianity.
Authorities sent Graham to Kathmandu that day for deportation, and Sweta Manandhar, Shreejan Manandhar, Tej Bahadur Shahi and Dal Bahadur Taruna are in police custody, Pastor Regmi said.
Bishnu Hari Upadhaya, director of the Department of Immigration, told media, “Nepalese law strictly prohibits such acts. Currently we are investigating whether the charges filed against her are true.”
Authorities found Bibles, diaries, pamphlets and videos related to Christianity among the accused, a Bardiya District spokesman reportedly told media.
Separately, on Nov. 4 in Butwal, police arrested four women, including two from Japan, on charges of carrying out forceful conversions. The women were accused of evangelizing door-to-door.
Authorities sent the two Japanese women, identified as Yasura Owa and Makihikula, to Kathmandu, and they were deported. The two Nepali women, Pushpa Ghimire and Tirthamaya Ghale, were released on Nov. 8, Pastor Regmi told Morning Star News.
Nepal is ranked 25 on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
At the recent 39th session of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) denounced increasing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.
“In August 2018, Nepal’s new Criminal Code came into effect,” WEA representative Wissam Al-Saliby said. “This new legislation, together with Nepal’s constitution, put disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of religion or belief, criminalize attempts to convert one’s religion, and thus violate the right of religious communities to share the tenets of their belief. We appeal to the governments of Sri Lanka, Nepal and India to repeal legislation and jurisprudence that violate religious freedom.”
Evangelizing is prohibited under Nepal’s new constitution, passed in September 2015, as it was under the previous constitution, but the new one has helped incite anti-Christian sentiment.
While the new constitution establishes Nepal as a secular and democratic republic, its definition of “secular” appears to protect Hinduism and allows others only to worship in their own faiths. Article 26 forbids anyone to convert a person of one religion to another.
Evangelizing has long been illegal in Nepal, but advocacy groups have recently detected increased enforcement and other anti-Christian efforts as officials seek to placate Hindus incensed that the new constitution did not re-establish a more prominent place for Hinduism.
Under the Criminal (Code) Act of Nepal, enacted in October 2017, those convicted of evangelizing or forcible conversion can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined 50,000 rupees (US$450). The code came into effect on Aug. 19.
While Article 26 (1) of Nepal’s Constitution protects freedom of religion or belief and includes the rights to profess, practice and protect one’s religion, Article 26 (3) of states:
“No person shall, in the exercise of the right conferred by this Article, do, or cause to be done, any act which may be contrary to public health, decency and morality or breach public peace, or 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.
The Christian community of Nepal has faced several cases demonstrating the ease with which the constitution’s anti-conversion laws can be misused.
There is a substantial increase in the number of aggressions against religious minorities, especially Christians, in 2018. These have included bombings and arson attacks on churches, physical assaults on Christians, false accusations alleging evangelism and conversions and false propaganda against Christians.
By criminalizing conversions, Nepal has infringed on the fundamental freedom of religion or belief which is guaranteed not only by its constitution but also secured by several international covenants, according to Alliance Defending Freedom, which undertakes legal legal advocacy for religious freedom.
“These vaguely defined laws are often abused to harass minorities,” according to an ADF press statement. “While the Indian constitution is very clear on protecting religious freedom, Nepal’s constitution prohibits the attempt of religious conversion. At the same time, Nepal is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty explicitly protecting freedom of religion and expression.”
Article 18 of the U.N. declaration asserts that believers have the freedom to practice their faith “in teaching, practice, worship and observance,” ADF notes in its campaign to obtain signatures supporting the Geneva Statement on Human Rights at www.ImHumanRight.org.