It's about Human Rights in the middle of Asia with Nepal’s Christians. And what's wrong with Christianity anyway?
By Steve Richards
United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
It’s about freedom of religion.
Nepal’s Christian community is increasingly underground; back to its roots you could say. There are arrests and imprisonments and the constant threat thereof, simply for doing what Evangelicals do: saving souls according to Christian principals some 2,000 years in the offing that encourage conversions of the believer as a natural consequence.
Nepali Christians are used to it. So too Christian based western NGO’s it would seem. An intended, and largely successful consequence, by the powers-that-be (largely Hindu centered) to keep the NGO’s largely separated from their Nepali brothers and sisters as NGO workers can also be arrested and deported if they aren’t careful. So, you have Western Christian groups in highly compromised positions. So close, and yet so far away.
I get it. I understand all too well the baggage that simply comes with the word Christianity. Say Jesus and a flood of personal experiences, opinions, relationships, etc. come rushing in. Including big chunks of those in the west who agree that Christianity has no place in a place like Nepal. Most afraid we are going to mess up perfectly good cultures with our double-edged swords of history, culture, and tangled religious-economic-ecological outcomes. Most 0like the idea of Nepal, sticking with its largely Hindu culture.
But this isn’t the point. It’s not up to us. Nepal has decided that freedom of religion is what they want. So much so that they have enshrined it in their constitution, just like we have in the USA and liberal democracies throughout the world. Here’s what Nepal’s constitution says:
Section 26 - Right to freedom of religion: (1) Every person who has faith in religion shall have the freedom to profess, practice and protect his or her religion according to his or her conviction…No person shall, in the exercise of the right conferred by this Article, do, or cause to be done, any act which may be contrary to public health, decency and morality or breach public peace, or convert another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardize other's religion and such act shall be punishable by law. https://constitutionnet.org/sites/default/files/2017-07/Constitution-of-Nepal-_English_-with-1st-Amendment_2_0.pdf
Sounds good right? Freedom of religion with limitations. It’s all well and good except for the part about converting another person. This makes the whole thing unworkable for religious minorities in Nepal. Don’t convert people? Don’t try to save their souls? It’s not in the evangelical DNA of Christianity ever since Christ directed folks to spread the word. Islam as well.
It wasn’t so long ago when there were virtually no Christians in Nepal. Until its opening in the 1950’s as a consequence of Sire Edmund Hillary’s expeditions to climb Mt. Everest it was a Hindu Kingdom dating back to pre-history - and still was when I first visited in 1998. A civil war ushered in a new constitution complete with religious freedoms and all that we take for granted in the USA, except for one glaring omission: the ability to convince others that your religion is the one and they should try it. That can put you in jail. So where is the freedom of speech? Where is the freedom of religion? How about freedom of assembly if you are assembling to hear the Word and consider baptism?
This principal of religious freedom is very much in the USA’s DNA as well. We take it for granted. It’s doubtful the pilgrims would have ever stepped foot on Plymouth Rock if not for the desire to be free to follow their religion. And this foundational Enlightenment principal found its way so elegantly in our constitution simply by saying there would be no laws at all about it in the very beginning of our Bill of Rights. The very first thing. Amendment 1 reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment
Freedom of religion is first and foremost because it is so integral to all the others.
This is not what they have in Nepal, They simply do not have freedom of religion. And they are therefore not free. Oh, compared to Chinese citizens just to the north they are, but compared to what they say they are, where they want to be, they aren’t quite there. Close but not quite you might say.
Why is this an issue? Is Nepal better off economically not guaranteeing these freedoms? Given that Nepal is one of the poorest nations on earth, and Christianity generally associated with economic growth as Max Weber in 1904 demonstrated in his: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/protestant-ethic-of-prosperity/
My personal experience includes years of relationships, days upon days of time, working together, praying together, worrying together, documenting, playing, preaching a few times, trekking to far away villages, attending baptisms, services, secret meetings, feeding, WiFi enabling, teaching, promoting, championing, loving, respecting, editing, producing, supporting, explaining, missing, and passionately advocating, for my friends in Nepal, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist alike. It just so happens that I tend to run with the Christians.
You might think I am a particularly religious person, even a zealot. I’m not. I’m an environmentalist first and foremost. I research and write about Christ not to save souls but to show to Jesus’s followers how simply and harmoniously he coexisted with the earth. I’m more in line with Thomas Berry than Joel Osteen (of whom I’m a fan and follow on Twitter). I’m also a bit of an economist by training and am panicked by Capitalism’s effects on our environment. And knowing that Christianity is at the center of so much of the devastation via its underpinnings of Capitalism and western political economies, I study and write about Christianity’s intersections with the environment and economics.
So, what’s this got to do with Nepal’s Christians? Because while I’m not sure Capitalism and the ecology are particularly well suited to each other, I do have a sense that human rights are integral to an evolving communion between humankind and our planet. It is in TheoEco’s name where our ecology, economics, and theologies are inseparably woven and impacting each another.
To me, it’s not about Christianity in Nepal so much as the Christians themselves.
If a leading priest needs to go by Rev. X and take down a mini-documentary featuring him from YouTube I understand. If a Nepali Christian leader needs to stay off camera I get it. If Brother Barnabas needs to use an alias, I know he has a good reason. These people have families and ministries. And political and legal niceties are all well and good for a guy like me safely on the other side of the world where Christian edifices are so ubiquitous and our religious liberties guaranteed for hundreds of years now. But not when your flock is counting on you. Or your kids and spouses Shunning is the least of it.
As a result, it is very difficult to bring attention to these folks. They avoid websites, they use aliases, they need yet don’t want attention. Brother Barnabas is a top Christian leader though he also must stay underground You’ve seen him in our films though not under his alias. He is a tireless advocate in Nepal, not just for Christians but for all those that marginalize along religious lines. A real lover of democracy.
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