Pastor in Nepal Fears Conviction Sets Ominous Precedent

Pastor Keshab Raj Acharya and wife Junu. (Morning Star News)

Pastor Keshab Raj Acharya and wife Junu. (Morning Star News)

NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – As he awaits prison after a wrongful conviction for proselytizing, Pastor Keshab Raj Acharya fears his case will set a precedent for authorities in Nepal to incarcerate other Christians, he said.

The 35-year-old pastor said he fears police and judiciary will cite his case as an example to send Christians to prison for either proselytizing or forcible conversion even without evidence.

“In case someone wilfully converts to Christ, the police and the court will convict the person through whom this believer has heard the message of Christ and His salvation,” Pastor Acharya told Morning Star News. “Where does the police/judiciary draw the line between ‘forced conversion’ and ‘voluntary conversion’?”

After Nepal’s High Court on July 13 reduced his sentence by the Dolpa District Court from two years in prison and a fine of US$167 to one year and a fine of US$75, the pastor on Oct. 6 lost an appeal to the Supreme Court to eliminate any prison time or fine.

The Supreme Court refused to consider his appeal, he said.

“On the first hearing, our request was blatantly dismissed by the Supreme Court without a glance at the documents,” Pastor Acharya told Morning Star News. “They insisted that the High Court’s decision would stand as final, refusing any further discussion on the matter.”

Calling the Oct. 6 ruling “unfair,” Pastor Acharya said his attorney would appeal anew to the Supreme Court.

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“The witnesses said that I did not even ask them to convert, only gave them tracts; they read it and discarded it,” he said. “I have been convicted for something that I have not done. I am being targeted unnecessarily and harassed and put to jail.”

His Nov. 30, 2021 conviction was the country’s first for proselytizing under a criminal code that went into effect in Nepal in August 2018.

Continuing to shepherd Abundant Harvest Church in Pokhara until he is summoned to prison, Pastor Acharya said he worries how his sons, 5 and 4, will react to his long absence.

“My children are very close to me,” he said. “They are used to not seeing me for few days or a week when I go for ministry trips, but one full year is a long time.”

While on ministry trips he would do video calls with his children every day, but that will not be possible from jail, he said.

“I will be allowed to call my family around 10 in the morning only, and my children would be in school at that time,” Pastor Acharya said.

With 250 members in the church that he and his wife lead, he has been ministering to them every day, visiting their homes for prayer and Bible study.

“We were very shocked and deeply sad initially, but then we made up our mind and decided to make the best use of the time till I am arrested,” he said. “Though the judgment has been pronounced, the court orders have not been released. It is festival time in Nepal, and thankfully they have not arrested me yet. I consider this as an opportunity and God’s providence.”

His wife, Junu Acharya, will lead worship services in his absence. She said police could arrive suddenly and take her husband to jail.

“What can I do when that day comes, except pray,” she told Morning Star News. “I must take care of the church as well as my children and provide for them.”

Shared Fears

Hanok Tamang, chairman of the National Churches Fellowship of Nepal (NCFN), said hostilities toward Christians have been rising.

“Though no pastor, leader or any Christian is in prison right now for proselytizing, we cannot predict the same for tomorrow, as we see prevailing anti-Christian sentiments and hostility increase gradually,” Pastor Tamang told Morning Star News.

He lauded those who have silently suffered for their faith, saying several pastors, their family members and other leaders have been imprisoned for their faith over the years.

“The Lord honored their prayers and tears and the number of years they spent in prison,” Pastor Tamang said. “Because of their unwavering trust in Him, God has been honoring and blessing Nepal today with many precious souls each day being added to the Body of Christ. We highly salute each of them, the heroes of faith, who stood in front of the judges of Nepal to testify the mighty name of our Lord.”

Evangelizing is prohibited under Nepal’s constitution of September 2015, as it was under the previous constitution, but the new one has helped incite anti-Christian sentiment. The constitution and Nepal’s Criminal Code that came into effect in 2018 put excessive restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and criminalize attempts to convert others, thus violating the right of religious communities to share the tenets of their belief, Christian leaders say.

While Nepal’s new constitution establishes a secular and democratic republic, its definition of “secular” appears to protect Hinduism, and Article 26 forbids anyone to convert a person of one religion to another.

While evangelizing has long been illegal in Nepal, advocacy groups have detected increased enforcement and other anti-Christian efforts since 2018 as officials sought to placate Hindus incensed that the new constitution did not re-establish a more prominent place for Hinduism. Under the new criminal code, those convicted of either evangelizing or forcible conversion can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined 50,000 rupees (US$600).

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 also has been a substantial increase in the number of aggressions against religious minorities, especially Christians, beginning 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 guaranteed not only by its constitution but also by several international covenants, according to Alliance Defending Freedom, which undertakes 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.”

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