NEPAL (BP) — A court in Nepal Tuesday (Dec. 6) acquitted eight Christians accused of attempting to convert children by means of a comic book, according to advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
The seven men and one woman were arrested in Charikot, Dolakha District, in June as part of a crackdown on Christian activities in the fledgling democracy. They were reportedly mistreated in jail before being released on bail for charges that can carry prison terms.
Evangelizing is prohibited under Nepal’s new constitution, passed in September 2015, as it was under the previous constitution. While the new constitution establishes Nepal as a secular and democratic republic, its definition of “secular” appears to protect Hinduism and allows others only to worship in their own faiths. Article 26 forbids anyone to “convert a person of one religion to another religion, or disturb the religion of other people.”
While evangelizing has long been illegal in Nepal, advocacy groups have recently detected increased enforcement and other anti-Christian efforts as officials seek to placate Hindus incensed that the new constitution did not re-establish a more prominent place for Hinduism.
Earlier this year advocacy group Jubilee Campaign, citing an anonymous source, said Nepal’s Social Welfare Council had stopped approving foreign grants for Christian activities. The council must approve all foreign aid for social welfare programs.
“The most plausible reason for this anti-Christian policy is that the already fragile Nepali government wishes to create goodwill amongst its Hindu majority,” Jubilee Campaign reported. “Until 2008, Nepal was the only official Hindu state in the world. The Nepali government is currently constructing Hindu temples, and there are plans to build an enormous Buddhist statue in Damak (in Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism are closely connected).”
The eight Christians arrested in June were verbally acquitted on Tuesday (Dec. 6), with a written verdict expected within a month. They were charged with trying to convert children to Christianity after they were found distributing pamphlets about Christ in a Christian school. The small books were used as part of a counseling program for children traumatized by earthquakes on April 25, 2015 and May 12, 2015.
The Christians were arrested after Teach Nepal, Kathmandu-based non-governmental organization, organized two trauma counseling sessions at two schools in Charikot. The earthquake trauma sessions took place on June 8 and 9 at Modern Nepal School and Mount Valley Academy in Charikot, with children receiving a small gift pack that included the 23-page Christian comic book.
Arrested on June 9 were Prakash Pradhan, principal of Mount Valley Academy; Bimal Shahi, principal of Modern Nepal School; Banita Dangol, of Teach Nepal; Balkrishna Rai of Teach Nepal; Philip Tamang of Teach Nepal; Kiran Dahal of Teach Nepal; and Bhimsen Tiwari of Teach Nepal. Arrested on June 14 was Shakti Pakhrin, pastor of Charikot Christian Church.
The final hearing in the case had been postponed four times before the verbal verdict yesterday.
“We welcome this acquittal of the eight Christians in Charikot,” CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a statement. “However, we join our voices with civil society in Nepal in urging the government of Nepal to amend Section 26 of the new constitution and ensure that it — along with the draft penal code — guarantees full freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. The right to freedom of religion or belief is of particular importance in Nepal, as the country recently made the transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democratic republic.”