(Morning Star News) – Municipal officials in Nepal ordered a church to stop construction of a worship hall after local Hindus objected to it, sources said.
Some of the area Hindus had threatened relatives who became Christians after pastor Manish Bohra began proclaiming Christ in Galkot in January. When a small church began that outgrew its rented room for worship, in March he leased land on which to build a temporary structure for worship.
The novel coronavirus pandemic halted construction, and after authorities lifted the lockdown on July 21, members of the church in western Nepal’s Baglung District renewed construction on a structure to accommodate 50 people, Pastor Bohra said.
“On July 26, I received a phone call from officials at Galkot Municipality warning us not to construct a church in the area, and that they had received a petition from the local residents opposing Christian activities in the area,” Pastor Bohra told Morning Star News. “When we tried to reason with the officials, they told us that we have gone against the Nepalese laws, and that we must stop all activities in the area and vacate the premises with immediate effect.”
All religious groups except Buddhist monasteries must register as nonprofit organizations to own land or other property, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom, but Pastor Bohra was only leasing the land.
Nepalese law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions with the exception of Buddhist monasteries, but all religious groups must register as nonprofit organizations or Non-Governmental Organizations to operate legally as institutions, according to the report.
The church in Galkot began with just two families in January and within a few weeks grew to 45 members, Pastor Bohra said.
“Many from Hindu families had come to Christ from poverty-stricken and emotionally drained families,” he told Morning Star News. “As a church, we had encouraged them to put belief in Christ, and soon we saw the Lord working in their lives. But the members faced severe opposition from their Hindu relatives. Some of them had even received threats that they will be killed if they see them attending church services.”
Galkot officials informed the church that about 40 people had signed a petition requesting authorities to stop the construction, he said.
The church had obtained an eight-year lease on land from an area resident, the pastor said.
“The entire transaction was done legally, and there is no chance of any foul play from our side,” he said, adding that he informed municipal officials that the church was prepared to go to court to retain its rights.
“The Nepalese constitution establishes religious freedom, but what is the use of writing it on a paper if the government and municipality officials do not allow construction of churches?” Pastor Bohra said. “Since we remained strong that we would even approach the court, they are putting pressure on the landlord, Ganesh K.C., to cancel the lease agreement or he would have to face consequences for leasing out his property to Christians.”
Last year the pastor faced a similar challenge in his native Kharbang village, he said.
“The villagers complained to police against assembling for prayers and use of a piece of land for Christian prayers, and the matter had gone to an extent of police taking Christians into custody,” Pastor Bohra said. “Only because I am a native of Kharbang village, they gave up the idea of pursuing a case against me and instead ousted me from there.”
Mukunda Sharma, executive secretary of Nepal Christian Society, told Morning Star News that Nepalese law on churches and their buildings is not clear, and that Hindu extremists exploit that vacuum to level accusations at Christians.
Article 26(2) of the Nepal constitution states, “Every religious denomination shall, maintaining its independent existence, have the right to manage and protect its religious places and religious trusts in accordance with the law,”’ Pastor Sharma said.
There is no law stating that Christians gathering to worship and pray should obtain permission from the government to do so, Pastor Sharma said. The constitution’s Article 26(2) and the Nepal National Code require such permission for official religious institutions, but Christians maintain that gatherings such as those of Pastor Bohra’s church are not official religious institutions.
The latest amendments to the Nepal National Code, also derived from Article 26(2) of the constitution, make it mandatory for religious institutions carrying out charity and philanthropic activities to be registered and obtain permission from both the district administration and revenue officials, he said.
The same provision includes the word ‘girijaghar,’ loosely translated as church house or church building, as among the entities carrying out charity and philanthropic work that are so regulated, but such buildings are not the same as gatherings of Christians, he said.
“If the Supreme Court interprets these specific provisions in the national code and the constitution as that they prescribe the churches to register before they operate as private places of worship, we want the apex court to issue certain directions and guidelines on this,” Pastor Sharma told Morning Star News. “With no expressed provision or a precedent before us, the churches have become an easy target for Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] groups, government, and police officials to impose false allegations of forced conversions, book cases and arrest pastors.
“Hence, the matter is for the apex court to decide what the laws say and how the churches should operate.”
Once the high court issues guidelines, they can be challenged on grounds of religious freedom or based on authorities’ deliberate attempts to withhold registrations or renewals of Christian groups registered as Non-Government Organizations or nonprofits. Many churches have tried to register with local and revenue officials, but they refuse to process them, he said.
“When a Christian institution into charity or philanthropic work approaches the officials for renewal, they ask the institution to amend the specific words signifying Christianity,” Pastor Sharma said. “For example, they would ask us to exclude words like grace, salvation and hope. If there is a cross in the logo, they would ask the organization to change its logo.”
If an institution points out that they were registered long ago and had faced no objection, he said, officials reply to churches, “We do not know who had approved this earlier. We are sorry that you are not aware of the Nepalese laws. Kindly amend your constitution and apply again.”
Nepal’s constitution declares the country to be a secular state but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” The country was a Hindu monarchy until 2007 when the interim constitution established a secular democracy.
The definition of “secular” in Nepal’s 2015 constitution appears to protect Hinduism, and Article 26 forbids anyone to “convert a person of one religion to another religion, or disturb the religion of other people.”
Advocacy groups have 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. A landlocked country between the giants of India and China, Nepal is said to be more than 75 percent Hindu and 16 percent Buddhist. Christians are estimated to make up nearly 3 percent of Nepal’s population, and Muslims 4.4 percent.
An increase in persecution of Christians in Nepal began after a new criminal code was passed in October 2017, which took effect in August 2018. 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 ADF-International.
Nepal is ranked 32nd on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.