Nepal's bill criminalizing religious conversion sparks fears of crackdown on Christians

Human rights advocates in Nepal fear that a bill passed on Aug. 8 which criminalizes religious conversion could spark a crackdown on Christians' freedom of expression and belief once it becomes a law and are now calling for an amendment to the measure.

(REUTERS / Navesh Chitrakar)A man stands near a wall with a painting of a Nepali national flag as he waits for a bus in Kathmandu, Nepal October 16, 2015.

When the Nepali parliament passed the anti-conversion bill earlier in August, concerns arose over the possibility that the measure could be used to target Christians and other religious minorities. As the bill also prohibits the "hurting of religious sentiment," it was feared that incidents such as the arrest of eight Nepali Christians who shared a comic book about Jesus last year could be repeated, Christian Solidarity Worldwide detailed.

"We are deeply concerned that if this Bill becomes law, we will see more cases like Charikot and further restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief in Nepal,"said CSW senior press officer Kiri Kankhwende. "The lesson from India is that anti-conversion laws not only restrict the rights of an individual to adopt a religion of their choice, but also put religious minority communities at risk of hostility and violence."

On Aug. 10, Janjagaran party MP Lokmani Dakal asked that the sections of the bill which criminalized religious conversion be scrapped. He pointed out that Nepal is "a signatory to international treaties that protect the freedom of religion and human rights" and asked that their country should not be known for breaking such treaties through its local laws.

Meanwhile, statistics from the World Christian Database show a significant growth in the number of Christians in Nepal --- from 458 in 1961 to 102,000 in 2001 and 375,000 in 2011. Bibles for the World president John Pudaite suggested that caste discrimination could be the main reason why Hindus in the country convert to Christianity, World Religion News reported.

According to Pudaite, the Christian Gospel appealed to a lot of Nepalis, especially after citizens found that they were free to choose their religion when the country transitioned from a restrictive monarchy to a democracy. Although the caste system was abolished in 2001, a lot of people at the lower end still suffer from discrimination and see Christianity as their only escape.