By Mark H.J. Fino, BosNewsLife Special Asia Correspondent
KATHMANDU, NEPAL (BosNewsLife)-- Seven evangelical lay Christians and a pastor who were detained and allegedly mistreated in Nepal after being caught handing out Bibles to children have been released but could face a trial for "proselytizing", church sources told BosNewsLife.
Police detained seven Christians June 8 in the northern district of Dolakha, an area devastated by last year’s deadly earthquake, where they were seen distributing the Bibles at a school.
Several days later, on June 14, authorities also took into custody Pastor Shakti Pakhrin for his ties with the people already under investigation for proselytizing, Christians said.
A pastor who knows them well told BosNewsLife that the Christians faced torture. "They included one pastor, two school principles, a driver and teaching ministry staff," said Jeevan Lama, a senior pastor at the Hebron United Methodist Church Nepal congregation.
Among the Christians were also members of the Teach Nepal group, which is involved in post-quake reconstruction, Christians said. Several days after their detention, all were released, but told to appear in court.
No trial date has been set yet.
Authorities did not address reports of torture during the detention but made clear that the Christians can expect an indictment of distributing Bibles for the purpose of converting students.
District Police Chief Bel Bahadur Pande told media that authorities began prosecuting the Christians after after receiving "complaints from local politicians and guardians."
Officials claim the Christians violated an article of Nepal's constitution on religious freedom which says that "no person shall act or make others act in a manner which is contrary to public health, decency and morality, or...convert a person of one religion to another religion".
The new constitution was adopted in 2015, some seven years after the country abolished the monarchy and became a republic in 2008.
The eight Christians deny wrongdoing saying they only distributed Bibles “to Christian students” who had asked for them. “We only gave it to them,” added Prakash Pradhan, principal of Mount Valley Academy, a local private school, involved in the distribution.
Pressure group Federation of National Christian Nepal has urged Home Affairs Minister Shakti Bahadur Basnet to halt the prosecution of the eight Christians. "Accusations against them are false and designed to create fear among other Christians," it said in published remarks.
Pastor Lama isn't surprised about the alleged crackdown on devoted Christians: He claims to have suffered attacks by extremists in the country who partly destroyed his church building.
It comes amid concerns among Hindu and Buddhist leaders in the country about the rise of Christianity here, high in the Himalayas.
While in 1951, Nepal’s census showed zero—Christians in the country, 10 years later 458 Christians were recorded. Fast forward 40 years. the number had risen to 102,000 and ten years later, in 2011, it stood at 375,000.
However the International Institute for Religious Freedom cites Nepalese Christian leaders as saying that as many as 2.3 million Christians are living among a population of some 32-million people.
(With additional reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos)