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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and permits the practice of all religions; however, although the Government generally has not interfered with the practice of other religions, conversion and proselytizing are prohibited and punishable with fines or imprisonment, and members of minority religions occasionally complain of police harassment. Some Christian groups are concerned that the ban on proselytizing limits the expression of non-Hindu religious belief. The Constitution describes Nepal as a "Hindu Kingdom," although it does not establish Hinduism as the state religion.

Hindus constitute 85 to 90 percent of the population; Buddhists, 5 to 10 percent; Muslims, 2 to 5 percent; and Christians, approximately 1.7 percent. Christian denominations are few but growing. Recent estimates put the number of Christians in Nepal at about 400,000, and press reports indicate that 170 churches operate in Kathmandu alone.

On April 2, 1999, Christian groups in Kathmandu were prevented from holding a planned Good Friday gathering in a public park in the Lalitpur district of the city because the organizers had not obtained the required permit. Similar Christian gatherings celebrating the Easter period have been allowed in the past. An estimated 400 would-be attendees went to the local district administrative office to protest, and three reportedly were injured when police attempted to disperse the group. Two days later, on Easter Sunday (April 4, 1999), the authorities allowed Christians to hold a procession through the streets of downtown Kathmandu and the Lalitpur district, which ended at an open air theater. The required permit was obtained prior to this event.

A conviction for conversion or proselytizing can result in fines or imprisonment or, in the case of foreigners, expulsion from the country. However, arrests or detentions for proselytizing are rare, and there have been few incidents of punishment or investigation in connection with conversion or proselytization during the last few years. For approximately 1 month in 1997, a Seventh-Day Adventist aid organization, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), was the subject of slanderous and vituperative attacks in the press by Hindu extremist organizations. These attacks began after a disgruntled former ADRA employee alleged that ADRA had been proselytizing. ADRA denied the allegation. ADRA had links to an Adventist school (established for the children of Adventist workers in the country), which also had been accused of proselytizing. The Government later convened an investigative panel that found the claims baseless and dismissed them. The investigative panel asked ADRA to confine itself to the relief and welfare activities for which it was registered; since ADRA already confined its activities to these areas, the request posed no new limitations. However, to clarify its function and role, ADRA severed all official ties to the school. As of June 30, 1999, both ADRA and the school were operating normally.

In March 1999, a U.S. medical doctor who had been operating a missionary-run clinic in Kathmandu visited the Home Ministry to renew his visa but learned that the Ministry had canceled his visa 8 months before. The Home Ministry detained him for two nights and then deported him on March 31, 1999. The Government never gave an exact reason for canceling the visa or for the deportation; the doctor believes that a former business partner made allegations to the Government that the doctor had proselytized.

For decades dozens of Christian missionary hospitals, welfare organizations, and schools have operated in the country. These organizations have not proselytized and have not faced religious discrimination. Missionary schools are among the most respected institutions of secondary education in the country; most of the country's governing and business elite graduated from Jesuit high schools. Many foreign Christian organizations have direct ties to Nepali churches and sponsor Nepali priests for religious training abroad.

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, except for traditional religious practices at Hindu temples, where, for example, members of the lowest caste are not permitted.

The Press and Publications Act, among other things, prescribes penalties for the publication of materials that create animosity among persons of different castes or religions.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

The adherents of the country's many religions generally coexist peacefully and respect each other's places of worship. Most Hindus respect and even revere the many Buddhist shrines located throughout the country.

However, in the past, disputes during local elections have escalated to isolated clashes between Hindu and Muslim supporters. The country's small but significant Muslim enclaves in the districts along the border with India and in Kathmandu are not well integrated with the larger Hindu majority. The lack of integration between these communities has contributed to this problem.

Some Christian groups report that Hindu extremism has increased in recent years. In January 1999, the Hindu chauvinist political party Shiv Sena opened an office in Kathmandu; a few Shiv Sena candidates unsuccessfully ran for office in the 1999 general elections. While the country is officially a Hindu kingdom, government policy does not support Hindu extremism, although some political figures have made public statements critical of Christian missionary activities. Some citizens are wary of proselytizing and conversion by Christians and therefore view the growth of Christianity with alarm. In August 1998, an Internet service provider warned a group of foreigners to stop a religiously-oriented electronic discussion group because the content of the discussions violated laws against proselytizing.

Hindu citizens who convert to Islam or to Christianity face isolated incidents of hostility or discrimination from Hindu extremist groups, in addition to possible legal penalties (see Section I). While this prejudice is not systematic, it can be vehement and sometimes violent. Nevertheless, converts generally do not fear to admit in public their Islamic or Christian affiliations.

The caste system strongly influences society, even though it is prohibited by the Constitution. However, traditional religious practices at Hindu temples are an exception to this prohibition. The Government allows caste discrimination at Hindu temples where, for example, members of the lowest caste are not permitted (see Section I). Otherwise, the Government makes an effort to protect the rights of the disadvantaged castes.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintains regular contact with major Christian groups and Buddhist leaders. The Embassy rarely has had to intervene on behalf of religious minorities. Nevertheless, the Embassy closely monitors the situation and acts when appropriate. In April 1999, for example, the Embassy asked the Government about a Good Friday ceremony for which the Government had denied permission (see Section I). In the fall of 1997, when the Seventh-Day Adventist aid organization, ADRA, came under scrutiny in the wake of rumors that it proselytized (see Section I), the Embassy discussed the matter with government officials in order to help clarify the situation.

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Revised last: 10-09-1999