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ERLC files UN report rebuking Nepal for religious liberty violations

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July 17, 2020

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.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24