The Nepali parliament passed a Bill on 8 August criminalising religious conversion and the ‘hurting of religious sentiment’. It is expected to become law once the approval of the president has been given.
The ‘Bill designed to amend and integrate prevalent laws relating to Criminal Offense’ was registered in parliament on 15 October 2014 and passed on 8 August 2017. However, there are concerns that these clauses could be used to target religious minorities, as occurred in the Charikot case in June 2016, when eight Nepali Christians were charged with attempting to convert children after sharing a comic book on the story of Jesus.
Human rights defenders in Nepal are calling for the Bill to be amended as it restricts *freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. Religious conversion is also curtailed in Article 26 (3) of Nepal’s constitution, which was used in the Charikot trial.
Kiri Kankhwende, Senior Press Officer at Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said: “We are deeply concerned that if this Bill becomes law, we will see more cases like Charikot and further restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief in Nepal. The lesson from India is that anti-conversion laws not only restrict the rights of an individual to adopt a religion of their choice, but also put religious minority communities at risk of hostility and violence.”
The wording of Clause 158 of section 9 of the Bill, which criminalises the ‘hurting of religious sentiment’, is similar to the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which make it a criminal offence to insult another’s religion. These laws are poorly defined and widely misused to settle personal scores, to target religious minorities or to further extremist agendas. Decades of misuse of the blasphemy laws have resulted in a situation where even voicing disagreement with these laws can lead to violence.
The provisions of Clause 160 in section 9 of the Bill, which restrict religious conversion, could be invoked against a wide range of legitimate expressions of religion or belief, including the charitable activities of religious groups, or merely speaking about one’s faith, which risk being portrayed as attempts to convert others. Similar anti-conversion laws in force in neighboring Burma and in six Indian states have been misused to foster social intolerance and violence towards peaceful religious activities, and to falsely accuse religious minorities - especially Muslims and Christians - of forcefully converting others.
On 10 August, Lokmani Dhakal MP of the Janjagaran party of Nepal, requested the removal of the sections criminalising religious conversion and said: “It seems very clear to me that this country when preparing the civil code has forgotten it is a signatory to international treaties that protect the freedom of religion and human rights… please don’t let it be possible for the world to say of Nepal that we are the kind of nation that on the one hand signs international treaties but when making internal laws and in implementing them, does something else.”
Kiri Kankhwende added: “CSW stands with human rights defenders in Nepal in calling for these clauses to be removed from the Bill as they are incompatible with Nepal’s commitment to uphold the rights of freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, as a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Notes to Editors:
1. Clause 158 of section 9 of the ‘Bill designed to amend and integrate prevalent laws relating to Criminal Offense’ states that:
1. Nobody should hurt the religious sentiment of any caste, ethnic community or class by writing, through voice/talk or by a shape or symbol or in any other such manner.
2. Anyone committing the offense as per sub-clause (1) shall face up to two years of imprisonment and a fine of up to twenty thousand rupees.
160 of section 9 of the ‘Bill
designed to amend and integrate prevalent laws relating to Criminal Offense’ states
1. Nobody should convert the religion of another person or indulge in such act or encourage such an act.
2. Nobody should indulge in any act or conduct so as to undermine the religion, faith or belief that any caste, ethnic group or community has been observing since sanatan [eternal] times or to jeopardize it with or without any incitement to convert to any other religion, or preach such religion or faith with any such intention.
3. Anyone committing the offense as per sub-clause (1) and (2) shall face up to five years of imprisonment and fine of up to fifty thousand rupees.
4. If a foreigner is found to have committed the crime as per sub-clause (1) and (2), he/she will have to be sent out of Nepal within seven days of completion of the sentence as per this clause.
3. Article 26 (3) of Nepal’s constitution which was promulgated in September 2015, which was used in the Charikot incident also curtails religious conversion. The clause states: No person shall, in the exercise of the right conferred by this article…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.