Why Nepal has one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian populations – Danielle Preiss

A Swiss missionary talks to a Nepali woman about the Bible in Kathmandu

Danielle PreissChurches mushroom throughout the Kathmandu Valley and across the terraced hills. Proselytizing remains illegal, but with political instability and weak law enforcement, that doesn’t stop it from happening. – Danielle Preiss

Famous for its high peaks and wind-whipped prayer flags, Hindu-majority Nepal used to be a nation unreached by Christianity.

Now the country has one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world, according to the World Christian Database, which tracks global trends in Christianity.

Bishwa Mani Pokharel, news chief at Nepal’s Nagarik newspaper, pulls out copies of the census to show the statistical gallop of Christianity across Nepal. It listed no Christians in 1951 and just 458 in 1961. By 2001, there were nearly 102,000. A decade later that number had more than tripled to more than 375,000. Pokharel and others think the increase is really much higher but inaccurately reported.

“Before, when the Christians had a party, they slaughtered a chicken. Now, they slaughter a goat,” says Pokharel, who has been reporting on the conversions. That extra meat, he explains, is necessary to feed all of the new people who’ve joined the guest list.

Much of this growth can be attributed to Nepal’s internal changes. Before 1950, Nepal was closed to foreigners. Mountain climbing changed that. And starting with the Maoist Civil War of the 1990s and culminating with the end of the monarchy in 2008, the country has transitioned from a Hindu kingdom to a communist-led secular republic with greater freedom of religion. Encouraging someone to convert to another religion was always illegal, but as Nepal eased away from its official Hindu status, the rules lightened up.

Churches now mushroom throughout the Kathmandu Valley and across the terraced hills. Proselytizing remains illegal, but with political instability and weak law enforcement, that doesn’t stop it from happening.

Meanwhile, the earthquake last year may have strengthened the Christian surge. Where the government—long mired in political instability—has failed to help poor villagers, aid groups have trickled in to fill gaps, some of them carrying a message of salvation.

Climbing for Christ (C4C), an evangelical group based in Rochester, N.Y., is one.

Pledging to bring the Gospel “where others cannot or will not go,” the group began its “Mission: Nepal” in 2008. In 2011, it dedicated the first church in the village of Dapcha, 25 miles east of Kathmandu. Today, Dapcha—with a population of just 1,000 families—is home to three churches.

“They found some sick people and broken families and talked to them and prayed for them, and miraculously these people were convinced and began to follow Christ,” said Tej Rokka, pastor of the C4C partner ministry, Savior Alone Redeems Asians. “They distributed some food for the people, and clothes. Because of that, people began to listen to them.”

After the earthquake, C4C sent relief materials such as tents and money for food and first-aid items to congregants in Dapcha and other affected areas. Gary Fallesen, C4C’s founder and president, and a team were also in Nepal in October helping rebuild the earthquake-damaged house that belongs to the family of Sumitra Pariyar, a young woman who believes she was healed from paralysis and seizures by her acceptance of Christ.

Lauren Leve, a professor in the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is researching women who have converted to Christianity in Nepal. She found that as in the case of Pariyar, many of these conversions were related to illness.

Others point to the Hindu caste system as an impetus. Though outlawed in 2001, caste discrimination is still widely practiced, particularly in rural Nepal, where people on the lower rungs suffer systematic abuse passed on between generations. Many converts come from these lower castes, and missionaries point to Christianity as a way to escape. “It’s the only way out,” says Fallesen. “Socially there’s nothing they can do to change that and then we come along and we share about Jesus and the love he has for them.” The system still exists, Fallesen says, but no longer has power over them.

Nepali leaders aren’t happy about the Christianity boom. Before the release of the country’s first constitution this September, debates swelled over whether to scrap secularism and go back to an official Hindu designation. While Christians and other religious minorities feared a clampdown on religious freedom, the Hindu right insisted secularism would allow Christianity to take over. The British ambassador in Nepal ran afoul of this sentiment in 2014 after telling Parliament the right to change religions should be included in the constitution. Pro-Hindu groups accused him of supporting proselytizing and called for his resignation. When lawmakers did ensure secularism in the constitution, police needed water cannons and tear gas to dispel angry Hindu protesters.

Leve thinks laws against proselytizing aren’t the best way for the Nepali government to keep conversions down. “What it needs to do is ramp up the public health and social support infrastructure so that its citizens are getting what they need from the state,” she says. “When public hospitals start to provide effective health services, when there’s a social safety net in place post-earthquake or any other time, you will see fewer people expressing any interest in Christianity.”

For Fallesen, this need for material goods can be a foot in the door to a conversation about Jesus. He said his team starts by building relationships with villagers to find out what their problems are. “Usually the solution to those needs is to share about Jesus,” he says.

Rokka, the Nepali pastor who is also C4C’s country representative, shows off the audio Bibles the team uses to minister to the illiterate in Nepal. People think the local language recordings of the New Testament are cellphones or MP3 players, he explained. He said that even when they find out what the gadget is, they’re still excited to get a new device.

Few avenues exist here for the rural poor to better their situation. For more than a decade, many parents have sent their children to “orphanages” in Kathmandu, where they hope they’ll get better resources and education than what’s available in their villages. The problem of false orphanages has grown so out of control that the U.S. and other countries banned international adoptions from Nepal in 2010. There were simply too many “orphans” with parents.

C4C supports an orphanage, too. Not all the kids are orphans in the western sense, Fallesen explained, but they come from families that don’t have the ability to properly care for them. How do these families feel about their kids getting baptized? “Some are happy, some are not. Some now want to take them out from the home,” said Rokka, whose ministry runs the orphanage. But the parents don’t typically act on their concerns, he added. “They have no way to help them. Anyway [the children] are getting help here, so [the parents] think, OK, let it be.”

Rokka came to the faith as a child after his mother died. He says some people convinced his father to send him and his brother to an orphanage run by an Indian missionary. Rokka estimates that 90 percent of the children he grew up with have since started their own ministries.

Sitting outside their Dapcha house, an elderly couple expresses disdain for the churches popping up around them. “We don’t go there,” the woman says, waving her hand dismissively and mimicking someone in Christian prayer. She then pretends to handle Buddhist prayer beads. “We say ‘om mani padme om,'” she says, using the Buddhist mantra to declare her faith.

To Christian relief workers like Fallesen, the importance of bringing Nepalis to Christianity outweighs the concerns expressed by nonbelievers. “If I have a choice between possibly offending you or saying OK, whatever you believe is fine, but I believe in my heart if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to go to hell, well, then I’m going to take the risk of offending you,” he says.

So C4C has its sights on more remote areas of Nepal. Land was just purchased for its newest church in the hard-to-reach far west district of Humla, where Fallesen says the Nepali population of seven Christian men has grown to 150 men and women. The church will be strategically placed at the point where Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims begin the trek to Mount Kailash, a holy site for both religions. – NPR, 3 February 2016

» Danielle Preiss is an American radio and print journalist in Kathmandu.

 


 

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Christianity’s rise tests Nepal’s new secularism – Peter Janssen

Nepalese Christians

Peter A. JanssenSince the advent of secular democracy in 2008, when the decade-long communist insurgency ended with the resignation of the last king and a pledge to draft a new constitution, Christianity has enjoyed a growing appeal among Nepal’s hill tribe minority groups, such as the Kirats and the Dalits. – Peter Janssen

Saturday is the one day off in Nepal’s working week and therefore has become the holy day for Nepal’s growing Christian community. At the Nepal Isai Mandali-Gyaneshwor Church in Kathmandu about 300 Christians gather every Saturday to pray, sing hymns, listen to Bible sermons and praise the Lord, many of them reverently raising their hands to the ceiling and shouting out “Hallelujah,” “Trust in Jesus” and “Amen.” The Nepali congregation provides a glimpse of what early Christians communities might have been like — simple, friendly and egalitarian—before Rome took over.

“One thing I like about Christians is they believe all Christians belong to one family,” said M. J. Shah, whose own family are descendants of the Shah monarchs who ruled Nepal for more than two centuries. When the country’s absolute monarchy ended in 2008, so did the reign of its last king, Gyanendra Bir Bokram Shah Dev, and the former Hindu kingdom was set on the path to a secular democracy.

“When I was growing up I was told Christianity was not for us. It was only for lower caste people,” said M. J. Shah, who “found Christ” in 2005. His family initially disowned him but have since reunited with him, in acknowledgement of his much-improved personal conduct since his conversion and marriage to another Christian. “Before, I was a gambler, a fighter, a drinker and a drug user. I used to beat people up. I was terrible,” he admitted.

M. J. Shah remains somewhat unique among Nepali Christians. Most significantly, he is related to the royal family and is therefore of a higher caste than most. Christianity has been on the rise since Nepal went secular, at least in name, in 2008. Previously Christian missionaries were banned from the kingdom. Now there are over 8,000 Christian churches in the country and more than one million converts, although exact estimates are difficult to find.

Nepalese Christian ChurchNeed for acceptance

A more typical convert is Dil Maya, a 70-year-old woman from the Dalit, or “untouchable” caste. “My husband Dhan Bahadur fell very sick once and no doctor could cure him,” she said as she attended the Nepal Isai Mandali-Gyaneshwor Church in Kathmandu. “Someone told me to go to a church and pray and that was how I first came here. It healed my husband, and I felt healed, too because for the first time in my life, I felt accepted by a community. No one accepted me before. I feel accepted here.”

Since the advent of secular democracy in 2008, when the decade-long communist insurgency ended with the resignation of the last king and a pledge to draft a new constitution, Christianity has enjoyed a growing appeal among Nepal’s hill tribe minority groups, such as the Kirats and the Dalits. The Federation of National Christians in Nepal (FNCN) estimates that 60% of all Nepali Christians are Dalits, as is their chairman, C.B. Gahatraj.

Dalits account for an estimated 12% of Nepal’s 30 million-strong population, with most of them living in the southern regions neighboring India. Although caste prejudices are arguably on the decline in the new Federalist Nepal, they are still there, especially in rural areas. Dalits are still barred from Hindu temples and from sharing drinking or eating utensils with upper caste Nepalis. “They are converting because they are treated like animals,” M. J. Shah said. “We have to change the structure of our society … then no one would convert.”

The earthquake and aftershocks of April 2015 provided another fillip for the country’s “Christian soldiers.” The quakes, which destroyed more than 800,000 homes and left thousands dead, offered an opportunity for Nepal’s growing Christian community to do what Christians do best—provide charity to the poor and neglected in the name of “brotherly love.” Christian charities managed to distribute relief packages in some of the country’s most remote areas, which the government’s operations failed to reach due to lack of funding or manpower.

“I think the earthquake was one of the reasons for the growing popularity of Christianity,” said Chandra Man Nepali, FNCN’s vice general secretary. “Where the government was not able to reach, there were the Christians. We went to the hard-to-reach districts with food, water and medical supplies. We had funding from the churches outside. In this way, Christians were more helpful to society.”

The earthquake also gave rise to fears that Nepal’s fledgling Christian community was using the natural disaster to help proselytize their faith. Nepalese media reported several cases of Christian charities, notably South Korean ones, passing out Bibles with the relief provisions. Local Hindu politicians were quick to jump on the Christian charities for exploiting vulnerable populations.

New Constitution of NepalBan on proselytizing

Under Nepal’s new constitution, pushed through in September 2015, people have the right to practice their religion but are barred from proselytizing. In fact, the charter implies that the country’s original religions—Hinduism, Buddhism and the animistic beliefs and practices of the Kirat minority (the indigenous race) should be protected. “Secularism means protection of religions and cultures being practiced since ancient times, and religious and cultural freedom,” reads the constitution. Christianity clearly does not qualify as an “ancient” sect in the former Hindu kingdom.

Legal experts argue that the constitution has good reason for banning Christians from advocating their beliefs. “The basic difference between Hinduism and Christianity is that in Hinduism you don’t have the concept of the church, and secondly you don’t have the concept of proselytizing,” said Bipin Adhikari, dean of the school of law at Kathmandu University. “The Hindus, Buddhists and Kirats don’t have the institutional apparatus to convert others so obviously they would like to see some reciprocity.”

Nepali Christians, however, see the anti-proselytizing clause as a form of discrimination. Another source of complaint is that Christian churches are not permitted to register as religious institutions but must do so as non-governmental organizations. Christian-run schools and medical clinics are often visited by local authorities to ensure they are not secretly converting students and patients.

Trying to keep a lid on proselytizing among newly-converted Christians goes against the tenets of the religion, which has from ancient times been about going out and “saving the world.” In modern Nepal, Christianity inspires the same evangelistic fervour it does elsewhere.

“When someone becomes a Christian they can’t shut their mouths from speaking about Christ. That is fundamental,” said Padam Parajali, a FNCN board member.

To date, Nepal’s Christian community has been spared the outright persecution and violent communal outbursts faced by other religious minorities such as Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. Even so, some Nepali Christians claim they face discrimination, for example in the jobs market or in general social attitudes. The overall sense of religious coexistence however may be due to the national character of tolerance that the Nepali people are renowned for. Nepali Christians might be wise to partake of that tolerance, at least in the short term.

“There is a sea-change going on in Nepal,” Adhikari said. “First, the monarchy is no longer there, second, the country is no longer a Hindu state, and third, the political system is being adapted as a federal system. So people are getting more educated and they are given more opportunities. The problem is that things move very slowly in Nepal.” – Nikkei Asian Review, 4 December 2016

» Peter A. Janssen is a prize-winning editor and record-setting publisher of US magazines and media.

Christian baptism in Nepal