By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KATHMANDU, NEPAL (BosNewsLife)– A court in Nepal has acquitted eight Christians who were accused of trying to convert children to Christianity,but rights activists said they remain concerned about a lack of religious freedom in the predominantly Hindu nation.
The seven men and one woman had been charged in Charikot with proselytizing after giving out a comic book about Jesus in a Christian school while helping children through the trauma of the 2015 earthquake which killed some 9,000 people.
Anything perceived as evangelism is outlawed under the new constitution implemented last year.
Banita Dangol, a Christian woman, and Christian men Prakash Pradhan, Bimal Shahi, Balkrishna Rai, Philip Tamang, Kiran Dahal, Bhimsen Tiwari and Shakti Pakhrin were detained in June this year.
The group was held in police custody for nine days and “poorly treated” in prison, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “Before being released on bail, local police officials charged them with attempting to convert children to Christianity through distributing a comic book which explains the story of Jesus.”
The case marked the first religious freedom dispute under the country’s new constitution which states in Article 26 that “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”.
The detentions followed two trauma counselling sessions organized by Teach Nepal, a Kathmandu-based non-governmental organization at two schools
in Charikot, according to well-informed Christians.
The sessions sought to address the psychological needs of children affected by the earthquakes in Nepal in April 2015 and were held in June at Modern Nepal School and Mount Valley Academy in Charikot. At the end of the sessions, organizers distributed a small gift pack to the children, including the 23-page Christian comic book.
“Mr Prakash Pradhan (principal, Mount Valley Academy), Mr Bimal Shahi (principal, Modern Nepal School), Ms Banita Dangol (Teach Nepal staff),
Mr Balkrishna Rai (Teach Nepal staff), Mr Philip Tamang (Teach Nepal staff), Mr Kiran Dahal (Teach Nepal staff) and Mr Bhimsen Tiwari (Teach Nepal staff) were arrested on 9 June 2016,” CSW said.
“Mr Shakti Pakhrin (pastor, Charikot Christian Church) was arrested on 14 June 2016.”
The final hearing in the case was postponed four times this year before it was held on December 6 and the court delivered an oral verdict dropping all charges and calling for the bail money to be returned to the eight Christians, according to trial observers.
The written verdict was expected within a month.
The case has prompted rights activists to urge constitutional changes. “We welcome this acquittal of the eight Christians in Charikot.
However, we join our voices with civil society in Nepal in urging the government of Nepal to amend Section 26 of the new constitution,” said Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
He told BosNewsLife in a statement that Nepal should ensure that the amendment “along with the draft penal code –guarantees full freedom
of religion or belief and freedom of expression.”
Thomas added that the “right to freedom of religion or belief is of particular importance in Nepal as the country recently made the transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democratic republic.”
CSW investigators expressed concern that Christians were held in police custody for nine days and poorly treated in prison.
Before being released on bail, local police officials charged them with attempting to convert children to Christianity through distributing a comic book which explains the story of Jesus.
Pastor Tanka Subedi, founding member and chair of Dharmik Chautari Nepal and Religious Liberty Forum Nepal (RLF) appeared more optimistic reportedly saying: “We are very happy with the court’s decision. This has raised our trust in justice and democracy in Nepal”.