Despite various forms of persecution, Christianity continues to make vital contributions to the Himalayan nation
Christianity is among the last religions to come to Nepal, but it continues to rise and shine in the Himalayan Hindu-majority nation despite various levels of persecution.
Mount Kailash is believed to be the birthplace of Hinduism and a sacred place of other faiths including Buddhism and Jainism. Christianity first came to Nepal in the 16th century, about two centuries after Islam made inroads in the time of the Mughal Empire. Besides Hinduism, indigenous faiths such as Kirat have existed.
From the beginning, there were no conflicts between the faiths. But trouble started when political interests crept into the ruling class. For example, Capuchin priests came to the Kathmandu Valley in 1715 at the invitation of the Malla kings and were allowed to evangelize and build churches. Historical records say the missionaries were not only looking for people to evangelize but were also exploring medicinal plants or herbs found in the Himalayan mountains.
However, after the unification of Nepal under King Prithvi Narayan Shah, Hinduism became the religion of the monarchy and all other faiths, including Christianity and Buddhism, were suppressed.
In 1769, some 56 Christians including Capuchin priests were forced to leave Nepal and later resettled in the Bettiah district of Bihar state in eastern India. The missionaries were accused of being agents of the British rulers of India and Christianity was viewed as a subversive Western religion. Thus, for the next two centuries, there was no overground history of Christianity in Nepal.
Christian missionaries returned after democracy was introduced in Nepal in 1951. Jesuit missionaries came and introduced modern education by starting two prestigious schools — St. Mary’s and St. Xavier’s — where the royals and the elites sent their children to study. Jesuits were restricted from carrying out evangelization.
By this time, Protestant and Evangelical missionaries also started to arrive, mostly with a humanitarian and social welfare approach, setting up schools, charities and healthcare facilities. Despite the restrictions on evangelization, the missionaries were able to influence Nepalese people and some of them converted to Christianity. The early Christians formed what we call the indigenous Church, making efforts in evangelization as well as social welfare. They have been the main driving force behind the growth of Christianity without much foreign religious influence.
From the dawn of Christianity, Christians have faced persecution. All first-generation Nepali Christians faced some degree of persecution. That is because it was considered an alien faith that does not belong here. When a person embraced Christianity, it was seen like he was deserting not only his own religion but also his family, culture and community. Christians who converted from upper-caste Hindu families faced more persecution than lower-caste and indigenous groups. It is because religion and culture had more influence in a social system dominated by high-caste Hindus. Yet some 27 percent of Christians in Nepal converted from high-caste Hindu families.
The persecution of Christians still continues in Nepal and it mainly has three layers. Firstly, it takes place in the family where members think Christianity is an alien religion that does not belong here. Secondly, the community starts harassing Christians and discriminating against them, often barring them from public jobs. They face criticism in the media without any reason. Thirdly, the state persecutes Christians based on legal provisions and restrictions. Nepal’s civil and criminal law was amended in 2017 to make the conversion from Hinduism an offense punishable with five years in jail.
Christian pastors are currently facing nine court cases on fabricated charges of conversions under the anti-conversion law. Groups such as Nepal Christian Society, National Churches Fellowship of Nepal and the Federation of National Christians offer financial and legal support to Christians who face such abuses. They also lobby the government and political groups on their behalf, but often such appeals are neglected.
Nepal has a secular constitution, yet it has a discriminatory anti-conversion law specifically targeting Christians. It is because census data shows Christianity is the only faith that is still growing despite all the persecution and discrimination. The actual number of Christians in Nepal is disputed. Some say there are 3-5 million Christians among Nepal’s 29 million people, mostly Hindus. In fact, Christians should not be more than 1.5 million. Catholics are small in number because, unlike the Protestant and Evangelical churches, Catholics didn’t have an aggressive evangelization policy.
The political ideologues and ruling class see the rise of Christianity as a threat to their rule of falsehood and incompetence, as they are always in fear of losing power to someone holding the truth. A vast majority of politicians and public service holders are corrupt people, so they are out there to exploit the religion card to get the votes of the majority at the expense of the minority. Their actions not only threaten Christians but also peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance in the country.
On the contrary, people of all faiths have very good relations. As the interfaith coordinator of Nepal Christian Society, I have been working with leaders of all faiths — Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Bahai, Jain and Kirati. We never have any problem and we have common ground on various issues. It is the misleading, vested political interests that trigger discord and disharmony.
The rise of religious-cultural nationalism and extremism in South Asia, from India, Pakistan to Bangladesh, has a strong influence on Nepal’s political and social system. Religious extremists spread hatred against minorities, alleging that they are infidels and anti-nationals. The political elites keep appeasing and pleasing them to win majority votes. In Nepal, many Hindus are badly influenced by this ideology. The Rashtriya Prajantantra Party wants the monarchy to be re-established and Nepal declared a Hindu kingdom again. Political leaders who are afraid of losing their votes join this bandwagon and say they are Hindu and people of other faiths, Christians and Muslims, should go away.
The hate mongers forget that Christianity has been a blessing for the country. Christianity came to Nepal with a humanitarian approach and evangelization was always blended with social service. Christians have pioneered social reformation, public awareness, quality education, health care and infrastructure development and challenged all sorts of social evils. However, due to an initial isolation policy, they ignored two major issues — economic and political activities.
However, in the past two decades, Christians have developed a strong presence in business, public service and even politics. In fact, politics is a new thing for Christians. We have one Christian lawmaker in the federal parliament and three lawmakers in provincial parliaments, though they don’t have a strong impact in empowering the community they represent. Christianity is a growing force and Christians will become influential actors in politics and business within a few years.
There are push and pull factors behind the growth of Christianity. The caste-based system and oppression of lower-caste people is a major driving force, but it is not the case always. For example, I am from a high caste and I was not deprived, and no evangelist came to allure me to Christianity. I started following Christ after I read and was convinced about the truth of the Bible. I was a strong critic of the caste system and discrimination, and the single idea of justice for all brought me to the Bible and Christ. The idea that Christianity has equality and denounces discrimination attracted many to the faith.
People realize Christianity is not just preaching of the mouth; it is more about caring about the community, especially those facing a difficult situation. Christians are mostly loving and caring but in some cases, they have been so extreme in preaching that they offended other faiths, denied other gods and rebuked other practices. These were emotionally charged attempts. But in a broad sense Christianity has been accommodating and caring to others.
Yet Christians are targeted, not others. Hinduism considers Buddhism and indigenous faiths as parts of it, while Muslims are spared too as any attack on Muslims might trigger a backlash from Muslim-majority countries. Christians are silent and suffer a lot in silence. Christians also maintain a policy of not seeking any outside (foreign) help in cases of persecution. We lobby the government and visit high-profile people for support. However, political leaders are mostly “mask-wearing” people who promise to support us but always back those who suppress Christians.
Like other communities, Christians have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Spiritual and pastoral life has been halted for two years. Churches have lost a lot financially and many churches renting properties for worship have closed down. About 30-40 Christians who were affected are pastors and church leaders, and about 120 of them died. The most disappointing matter is that families of pastors who were serving people genuinely have been the worst victims as they were left with nothing to survive. We comforted the families and offered cash handouts to some 600 Christian families.
The rise of Christianity is good news for Nepal as Christians have been always on the forefront during all calamities, pandemics and natural disasters like earthquakes, mudslides and floods. Christians are always there to comfort people in distress. As Christianity grows in Nepal, it will definitely help the nation become much better.