The ERLC participated in the Universal Periodic Review process for the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal focusing on the human rights records of the country. The ERLC filed a joint report to the United Nations, partnering with 21Wilberforce, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and the Jubilee Campaign on the newly implemented Constitution of Nepal. The new Constitution sets out new restrictions on religious liberty that have significant consequences and developments in the country.
What does Nepal’s new Constitution say about religious liberty?
Nepal adopted a new Constitution in 2015 that guarantees the right of every person “the freedom to profess, protect, and practice his religion.” Article 17(2) of the Nepali Constitution states that, “Every citizen shall have the freedom of opinion and expression.” Nevertheless, in Article 26(3) the Constitution states that “No person shall . . . 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.” The penalty for proselytizing in Nepal carries a sentence of up to five years in jail along with a fine. The language of the Constitution provides broad, sweeping power to the state that has resulted in arbitrary imprisonment and jarring human right abuses of religious minorities.
The new legal restrictions and abuse of authority in Nepal have placed the country in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR is an international treaty under the United Nations that sets forth commitments for signatory countries with respect to freedom of religion, speech, and assembly. In 1990, Nepal adopted and signed the ICCPR and is therefore subject to the commitments within the treaty.
Further, Article 18 of the ICCPR states that all people have a fundamental right to practice religion and the freedom to choose one’s religion. Article 19 of the treaty states all people have the freedom to “hold opinions without interference” and to express their beliefs in any form of communication and media outlet. Moreover, in 1990, Nepal ratified the Nepal Treaty Act, which pledges Nepal to interpret state laws in accordance with the ICCPR. Therefore, Nepal is obligated to honor these commitments the country made in 1990.
The language of Nepal’s Constitution contains protections for freedom of religion and expression, nevertheless criminalizes the right to choose one’s religion for themselves. The new Constitution effectively undermines the right to freedom of religion; and the current language of the Constitution is not sufficient to provide for adequate protections for the religious liberty of religious minorities. The failure of the Constitution to secure these protections has led to shocking persecution and an outright denial of freedom of religion.
Why does this matter?
Emerging practices of regular persecution have resulted due to the new Constitution’s failure to provide protections for religious minorities. Nepal, which is predominantly Hindu, has capitalized on the global COVID-19 pandemic to justify persecution of religious minorities like Muslims and Christians. Media campaigns in Nepal have targeted Muslims and accused them of being the primary cause of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in order to foster animosity towards Muslims communities. These groundless media campaigns have been successful in the Southern Terai Region near the Indian border where the majority of Muslims reside. The campaigns have resulted in increased cynicism, suspicion, and violence toward Muslim communities in the region.
On April 12, 2020, in the Saptari District, a police officer fatally assaulted an unarmed 54-year-old Muslim woman, named Zainab Khatoon, with a baton as she tried to save her son from the police. Nearly one week later in the same District, a 13-year-old boy named Mohammad Meraj was brutally beaten by police and is in critical condition. A few days later in the Rupandehi District, four Muslim factory employees were falsely accused of carrying COVID-19 and were subsequently terminated from employment without any investigation or medical diagnosis.
In the second week of May 2020, within the Parsa District of Nepal, in an act of terror, a Muslim neighborhood came under attack by a group of radicalized Hindus leaving several Muslim residents seriously injured and hospitalized. On May 4, in the same District, a Muslim girl under the age of 18 was raped by a Hindu boy. The local police initially refused to investigate the allegation until the Intellectual Muslim Association of Nepal (IMAN) compelled the police to undergo an investigation.
Christians have also been victims of increasing persecution in Nepal. A Christian Pastor, Keshav Raj Acharya, was arrested for conducting a prayer during his church service and subsequently uploaded the prayer on Youtube. The Pastor prayed that the coronavirus would “go away and die” in the name of Jesus. The police claimed Pastor Acharya was arrested for violating the public health and peace order, which entailed lockdown restrictions, by holding a church service. However, the video was uploaded to YouTube on February 22, 2020, which was nearly a month before the lockdown orders were implemented.
Although Pastor Acharya was soon released from prison and left with a fine, the police subsequently rearrested Pastor Acharya under new grounds immediately thereafter. The Nepali government claimed that Pastor Achraya engaged in illegal “conversion activities” by uploading the video. Pastor Acharya was accused and imprisoned because he incited “outraging religious feelings” and was “attempting to convert others.” However, Pastor Acharya’s prayer had nothing to do with an attempt to convert others or spread false information. Currently, Pastor Acharya is released on bail and is currently awaiting trial.
The recent crackdown on Muslims and Christians is representative of the increasing animosity and hostility toward religious minorities. Pastor Acharya’s story exemplifies a departure from the rule of law and a worrisome suppression of the right to freedom of religion. While the fate and freedom of religious minorities in Nepal is in peril, it is crucial for the international community and Christ followers to speak out against these blatant violations of fundamental human rights.
What happens next?
Nepal has signaled to the international community that they are open to recommendations regarding the new Constitution to promote the rights of minorities in the country. The ERLC, along with a coalition of organizations committed to supporting international religious liberty, wrote to the United Nations Human Rights Council urging the state of Nepal to amend Article 26(3) of its Constitution and decriminalize the act of proselytization under their penal code. We also called on Nepal’s Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs to institute an auditing system in order to ensure the judicial branch of Nepal respects the freedom of religion and due process.
We believe these steps will serve as an impetus to achieving equal justice under the law and just treatment for religious minorities in their communities. Nepal is currently under obligations to follow international law the country has already consented to and we are pushing to ensure Nepal remains true to its international commitments. If Nepali authorities take these recommended actions, then Nepali laws and its Constitution will fit in line with Nepal’s international human rights obligations. By removing these institutional barriers to full equality, we believe that all citizens of Nepal will have their God-given rights to the free exercise of religion fully restored.
ERLC intern Sloan Collier contributed to this article.