FREEDOM of religion is under threat in Nepal, according to a report published last week by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on International Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The report identifies laws that are being used to suppress the freedom of religious and ethnic minorities. Despite Nepal’s constitution proclaiming it to be a “secular” and “inclusive” state, the report finds: “Criminal laws are being excessively used or abused against persons because of their religion or belief.”
The APPG, which comprises members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons but has no official status in Parliament, offers recommendations to the Nepalese and UK governments, warning: “It is critical that intervention be initiated before mass atrocity crimes occur.”
The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, spoke at the launch of the report on Monday of last week: “I think the country of Nepal is a really important test case for the freedom of religion and belief.” He described being in Kathmandu about three and half years ago, and seeing at first hand the harassment suffered by Christian communities.
The report notes that in Open Doors’ World Watch List 2021, Nepal ranked 34th among countries where Christians were most persecuted, but dropped 14 places to 48th in the 2022 list (News, 21 January). Putting this into context, Bishop Mounstephen said: “It’s not that things have got better in Nepal: it’s that they are getting worse everywhere.”
He continued: “This is a global trend: freedom of religion and belief is increasingly curtailed and denied the world over.” He hoped that the report would “add momentum globally to this really important cause”. Bishop Mounstephen chaired the Independent Review of Christian Persecution in 2019, and in 2021 described the denial of religious freedom as a “great evil” (News, 5 November 2021).
The DUP MP Jim Shannon, who chairs the APPG, said: “The fact that Nepal is not among the highest-ranking countries for violations of freedom of religion or belief means that it is often overlooked. Increased concern regarding the suppression of religion or belief, with restrictions on this freedom reaching their highest levels in years, highlights the importance of directing more attention to this country, before violations escalate further.”
The report recommends altering the law to decriminalise “conversion” and leave only “forced conversion” illegal. The human-rights activist Dr Ewelina U. Ochab, who is quoted in the report, says that the current law “leaves open potential prohibitions on trying to convert others and curtails an individual’s ability to speak about their religion to others”. Bishop Mounstephen described anti-conversion laws as being “appallingly abused for the settling of scores”.
The APPG report also calls on the UK Government to support Nepal in implementing the recommendations.