By Kiran Bali
THE COMPLICATIONS OF CONVERSION IN A MULTIRELIGIOUS WORLD
With a current population of around 30 million, Nepal used to be the only constitutionally declared Hindu nation in the world. The now-defunct constitution of 1990, in effect until January 15, 2007, described the country as a “Hindu Kingdom,” whilst not establishing Hinduism as the state religion. Then came the Communist Party of Nepal and its secular “Republic.”
Historically, adherents of the country's many religious groups generally coexisted peacefully and respected places of worship, although there were occasional reports of societal abuse and discrimination based on religious prejudice. Those who converted to a different religion sometimes faced violence, occasionally were ostracized, but generally did not fear to admit their affiliations in public. Overall, Nepal is viewed as a religiously harmonious place for its state of development.
Nepal was converted into a secular state from a Hindu kingdom in 2008 through Parliament’s declaration following the abolition of the monarchical system of rule. It removed the word Hindu and became secular. Hinduism is reported to be the religion of 81 percent, followed by Buddhism with nine, Islam with four, Kiranta with three, and Christianity a little over one percent.
Why was the world’s only self-identifying Hindu nation looked upon as a threat to democracy and egalitarian values? Nepal’s national identity stems from Hinduism, but this didn’t mean that Nepal was a theocratic state. Rather, Nepal’s cultural reality, its ‘character,’ is abundantly multicultural and celebrates diversity. Buddhism is one of the religions deeply embedded in Nepalese culture and custom and Nepal is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists.
Bodies such as the National Interfaith Religious Network have been working for years enhancing friendship, understanding, harmony, and cooperation among religious communities. Partnerships among various faith organizations and interreligious leaders have worked to diminish discrimination prevailing in the Nepalese society in the name of religions and culture. Religious leaders from various traditions have a strong spiritual and motivational influence in the communities.
Multifaith efforts have been carrying out awareness and advocacy programs ranging from challenging violence against women to HIV AIDS abatement to promoting peace and harmony. They provide concrete examples of religious people working together to tackle social problems, without trying to influence political considerations during this crucial time of development in Nepal.
I spoke at length with Dr. Chintamani Yogi ji, the brilliant and accomplished founder and leader of several organizations in Nepal with strong commitments to interfaith ideals. Working to promote URI in Nepal, he highlighted the need to bring religious faiths closer together and to inspire them to take their spiritual messages to the grassroots for the betterment of society. He spearheads values-based education, believing it to be a critical key in addressing the development issues facing Nepal. Values-based education “develops the whole human being, people committed to society and positive in facing the challenges to reform society.”
Dr. Yogi ji talked about the religious harmony in Nepal until recently and about how some political parties create divisions. He urges all to explore an alternative word instead of ‘secularism’ which a number of political parties are advocating. What concerns many is whether secularism means a pluralism whereby no one religion can dominate, or if it is a secularism masking its anti-religion bias, in this case against Hinduism.
It is clear that politics have played a pivotal role with these issues. And it is drawing intense opposition from Nepalese religious communities. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party has stated that without the Hindu religion, the basis for the existence of Nepal is questionable. They promote rolling back the “secular” tag and embracing again “a Hindu state.” They believe that Nepal becoming secular is part of the religious imperialism of the Western world. And they point out that religious conversion has become a major Nepali problem.
The issues with Christian Conversation Tactics
A major issue challenging interfaith cooperation, Dr. Yogi ji mentioned, is the rife conversion activity, taking place. The issue of religious conversions has assumed serious and contentious proportions in Nepal even as political leaders continue struggling with their years-long task of drafting the new constitution.
Social tension over religious conversions has been compounded by Christian religious leaders demanding the right to convert from one religion to another being guaranteed in the new constitution. Christian religious leaders suggest that while forcible conversion is wrong and can be penalized, there ought to be no restriction on people converting of their own free will.
Hindu, Buddhist, and Kiranta religious leaders contend that financial and other material enticements are used to lure poor people from other religions to convert to Christianity. The interim constitution says that nobody shall be entitled “to convert another person from one religion to another” and one of the two constitutional proposals is almost identical to this.
South Asia enjoys a rich history of harmony, peaceful coexistence, interfaith cooperation, and mutual respect among members of different religions. But religious conversion arouses strong passions across the whole region. There is complicated history of religious transactions where religions bear a heavy historical baggage of conquest, colonialism, and territorialism.
The sensitivities in South Asia around religion and identity have generated various adverse reactions to the issue of conversion. Hindu nationalism has emerged in India condemning the influence of Islam and Christianity as ‘foreign’ religions and instigating discrimination against them. Pakistan, created in 1947 and established as an Islamic republic, has seen non-Muslims suffering violence, discrimination, and exclusion from public office ever since. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists have made strong allegations that forced conversions of the Sinhalese is taking place.
In all these circumstances, religious conversion becomes dangerous, subversive, a matter of community allegiance rather than private creed. The assumption is that a new convert does not choose their new religion, but is converted to a new religion by another person.
There are some different perspectives dominating mainstream Christian thinking about conversion. One is that conversion comes about through direct divine agency. Another is that agency for conversion rests with the new convert: after being persuaded of the merits of a new religious faith, he or she chooses to adopt that faith.
Both these attitudes can provoke anger and sometimes violent reprisals against small Christian communities and have resulted in attacks against churches.
The British Model
This allows me to reflect on Britain, which I feel, rightly so, is a Christian nation. Christianity is part of Britain’s heritage. Britain embraces, welcomes, and accepts all faiths and none, and remains a Christian nation. As a member of a minority faith in Britain, I have the freedom to practice my faith, something I do not take for granted when I see minorities being persecuted across the world. Britain’s Prime minister, David Cameron, has recently defended the right of the Church to intervene in political debate, saying Easter was a “time to reflect on the part that Christianity plays in our national life … The Church is not just a collection of beautiful old buildings; it is a living, active force doing great works across our country.”
I absolutely agree, the Church is at the heart of life in Britain, and I would not want it any other way. We celebrate all religions and traditions in Britain whilst being respectful of its Christian heritage. Has the fact that Britain is a Christian country impeded development and democracy? I do not feel it has; rather it has enriched my faith as a minority and allowed me my religious freedom.
In Nepal, protecting religious freedom is very important, and there should be no restriction on people converting to a religion of their choice. However this conversion process must not be forced, coerced or purchased by others as predatory activities.
My hope is that Nepal will reclaim its status as a Hindu nation added with a celebration of religious diversity and religious freedom coupled with enforceable laws against forced conversion. This will mirror the model of Britain, which is the epitome of interfaith cooperation and relations.do not feel it is untoward to celebrate Hinduism as the nation’s identity and heritage with the advocacy of religious freedom and equal treatment for all religions by the state.
Despite there being a huge number of states for other religions, there is now no Hindu nation in the world. Revisioning Nepal as an interfaith-friendly Hindu state will only enhance global interfaith cooperation.