The Nepalese president is expected to approve a bill that will outlaw any attempt to convert someone to a different faith, alongside the “hurting of religious sentiment”.
The country’s parliament passed the law, which will effectively ban evangelisation, on 8 August as fears grow of a crackdown on religious minorities, especially the country’s small Catholic population.
Anyone convicted under the new law, including foreign visitors, could face up to 5 years in prison for seeking to convert a person or “undermine the religion, faith or belief that any caste, ethnic group or community has been observing since sanatan [eternal] times.”
Anyone who “hurts religious sentiment” also faces up to two years in prison and 2,000 rupee fine.
Although the bill does not mention any religious group specifically, it is similar to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which is frequently abused to harass minorities, particularly Christians. Nepal is over 80 per cent Hindu, with Christians making up barely one per cent of the population.
International free speech group the Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF) says that in 2016 eight Christians were arrested in Nepal after sharing a comic book on Jesus with children.
Since the overthrow of the monarchy in 2008, Nepal’s republican regime has become increasingly authoritarian. The country’s government has been dominated by Moaists and Leninists who have struggled to establish a stable government.
A new constitution, finally approved in 2015, already forbids any attempt to convert a person from one religion to another, but no law to that effect has been formally enacted until now.
Tehmina Arora, legal counsel and director of ADF India, said: “International law and the human rights treaties the country has signed protect religious minorities. They explicitly allow conversion, missionary work, and public worship. Nepal risks returning to a totalitarian society in which individual rights are being severely curbed.”