From terror to toleranceEfforts promoting interfaith harmony should be sustained, even as basic human rights should be upheld
While strolling down Lakeside in Pokhara one fine evening, a small but tidy hemp fabric clothing store caught my attention. Though it was almost time for my usual evening prayers, I was drawn to this shop by a young lady with puffy eyes and curled jet-black hair in a maroon robe.
After a few exchanges, I was asked my name. “I am Bhawana”, I replied with a light smile. “And what caste do you belong to?”, she asked gently. Instead of answering, I asked her the same question. “I am Gita Pariyar, but I am a Christian, Didi.’’
I sensed this conversation was going to be very engaging, and decided to miss that evening’s prayer. After all, trying to understand religious evangelism would be worth it.
Understanding the numbers
Statistics from the International Institute for Religious Freedom, World Christian Database and Nepal census show that there were no Christians in Nepal in 1950. After the political change of 1951, Nepal opened its door to expatriates. 20 years later, the number of Christians increased from none to 2,541, occupying 0.02 percent of the country’s total population. In 2001, it reached slightly more than 100,000. The recent census shows that the number has increased by 450 percent, though many think this is far less than the actual data, considering the current pace of conversion in rural Nepal.
For example, Climbing for Christ (C4C), an evangelical group, has been visiting remote places like Humla since 2012, and has successfully built a church where the congregation has increased from a few to hundreds. C4C’s plan for early 2018 is to trek to Mugu and Humla to reach out to those converted locals and help them through various means, including the construction of another church and the provision of support for orphanages.
Gita not only explained her case to me in her shop, she also gave me the addresses of a few churches in the town. Later that week, I made several trips to these churches and cases similar to Gita started to reveal themselves. My personal communications and observations eventually led to an understanding of the fundamental factor behind rising Christian proselytising, particularly in central and far western Nepal, and why women are the key targets.
Though several Christian missionary hospitals, welfare organisations and schools are functional in the country, proselytising is illegal in Nepal. The immigration law states that anybody found proselytising will be expelled from the country. However, this hasn’t stopped locals from being converted to Christianity.
A case for conversion
Communicating with some Nepali pastors made me realise that the fundamental reason behind embracing Christianity is the Government’s inadequate social protection mechanism. Though caste based discrimination has been outlawed, numerous documented cases portray the precarious conditions of minority communities. They have yet to be widely and openly accepted as fellow citizens by our society. More importantly, oppression of Dalit women and lack of protection of basic human rights has often led to human rights violations.
Since minority women are more vulnerable, they are subjected to different kinds of agony. Four years ago, Gita faced a similar fate. She was molested by one of the village elites and was later ostracised by the village for raising her voice against the Brahmin aggressor. Gita was 18 years old then. Raised by a widow mother, she could not endure the pain and ostracism. She left the village. On her way to Pokhara, she met a Nepali-speaking foreigner lady who happened to be member of a Christian missionary. They became friends and Gita started enjoying her company. After a few months of friendship, Gita willingly converted to Christianity.
Arranging her hair, she said, “I find solace in the group of Christian people, as I get all kinds of support and protection through the church fellowship program. In fact, for the first time in my life I felt a sense of community after being alienated and insulted by our so-called own people. I am happy and content now as a Christian”.
Gita’s story echoes the anguish of many women who have travelled a rugged path to embrace Christianity. Their number has increased many times over in recent years. This increasing trend of conversion has provoked pro-Hindu radicals to pitch the propaganda of proclaiming Nepal a Sanatan Hindu Rashtra once again, pretending as if the recent Constitution hasn’t declared Nepal to be a secular state. And when such tactics fail, gundas (thugs) are often deployed to vandalise the churches. The April 2017 arson attack on the premises of Assumption Church in Kathmandu is a good example of such an occurrence.
As interfaith interactions help spread awareness about common values such as compassion, love, and respect for diversity by creating a space for all religious practices, efforts promoting interfaith harmony should be sustained.
Upadhyay writes on contemporary social issues, natural resource management and sustainable development practices