In response to allegations of forced conversions among Nepalese citizens by over-zealous Protestants, the government is considering changing the criminal code to make it illegal to convert to any religion other than Hinduism and Buddhism. This wouldn’t just be limited to the act of conversion itself; according to Asia News, under the new code, “anyone who preaches or tries to persuade others to change religion could get up to five years in prison and receive a fine of [around $900].”
Nepalese officials say that the move would not be intended to stigmatize Christians as a whole. “The law is not against Christians who do great work in the service of the country,” Nepali Justice Minister Prabhu Sah said, “but is against the imposition of Christianity.”
He added, rather pointedly, that the allegations of forced conversions did not apply to Catholics. Protestant groups vehemently denied the claims.
The issue of forced conversion isn’t just confined to Nepal; in 2006, the Indian state of Rajasthan banned forced conversion (not all conversion) after “hardline” Hindu parties accused Christian missionaries of coercing people to change religions. But it also seems to be wrapped up in a good deal of politics, including the desires of these “hardline” Hindus, who were mentioned in the Asia News article as well.
Nepal became a secular state in 2006 after the centuries-old absolutist Hindu monarchy fell and was replaced by a non-sectarian government. This was followed by a series of Hindu rallies and concern that cows, which are sacred in Hinduism, would begin to be slaughtered in secular Nepal. Meanwhile, other religious groups were said to welcome the change.
Now, it’s unclear whether the move to ban conversions to religions other than Hinduism and Buddhism is an attempt for Hindu fundamentalists to gain power, or a genuine attempt to end forced conversions (or, perhaps, both). But it certainly seems as though the government doesn’t need to ban all conversion, and the new section of criminal code, if loosely interpreted, could impinge upon religious freedom.
Photo from Jean-Marie Hullot's Fotopedia page.