Nepal (MNN) — Gospel for Asia leaders in Nepal have voiced concern about a proposal for the country's new constitution that could restrict the right of individuals to change their religious beliefs. But at the same time, they also see some "silver linings" in the draft, which most experts predict will be accepted by the Parliament.
The constitutional crisis has come on the heels of a 10-year civil war in this Himalayan country that ended in 2006. The end of the war resulted in the transformation of Nepal from a Hindu kingdom into a secular nation.
However, the writing of a new constitution has yet to be completed, due in large part to continuing turmoil in the country and infighting between various political parties.
This week, an influential legislative committee recommended that the new constitution retain the ban on religious conversions, which has been in place since 1951. The constitution does guarantee the right of religious denominations to control their own affairs.
The proposal says, in part:
(1) "Every person shall have the freedom to profess, practice and preserve his or her own religion in accordance with his or her faith, or to refrain from any religion. Provided that no person shall . . . indulge in activities . . . to convert a person from one religion to another . . . or behave in a manner which may infringe upon the religion of others."
(2) Every religious denomination shall have the right to maintain its independent existence and . . . to manage and protect its religious places and religious trusts . . . ."
The leader of Nepal's Gospel for Asia-supported churches said he expects the proposal to be approved and that it would, indeed, limit conversions to Christianity.
"We know that the new constitution will restrict conversions in order to 'protect' the country's demography and thereby its culture," he said. "But Nepalese Christians already live within the country's culture. I myself never wear a tie, for instance, because it is seen as Western."
One of the issues surrounding the new law is not the wording, but the interpretation that may follow. While the law does not penalize individuals for changing religions, it does punish those who lead someone to convert. Similar laws have been misused by anti-Christian radicals to harass believers in neighboring India.
But Gospel for Asia President Dr. K.P. Yohannan sees in the law a glimmer of hope and possibly new opportunities for Nepalese churches.
"Until now, the Nepali government has not recognized Christianity as a legal religion," Yohannan explained. "So Christians cannot register a church, buy property, or conduct weddings and funerals. If, under the new constitution, the government recognizes Christianity, this will be a positive thing for the churches."
"In the end, the anti-conversion law will not stop people from coming to Christ," added Yohannan, "just as similar laws have not stopped people from coming to Christ in India or China or Bhutan or in Muslim countries.
"Now is the time for Christians to pray that, within the new law, Nepal will grant Christians the same rights as other religions in the country.
"And please pray quickly," Yohannan urges, "because the Nepali parliament will act on this matter very soon."