In a case that has sparked fears of potential repercussions for Christians in Nepal, Pastor Keshab Raj Acharya, 35, is awaiting imprisonment following a wrongful conviction for proselytizing.
Pastor Acharya expressed concerns that his case could set a troubling precedent, allowing authorities to incarcerate Christians without substantial evidence of wrongdoing.
In a report by Morning Star News, the pastor’s troubles began when Nepal’s High Court reduced his initial sentence from two years in prison and a $167 fine to one year and a $75 fine on July 13. Despite an appeal to the Supreme Court on October 6 to eliminate any prison time or fine, the court refused to consider his case, deeming the High Court’s decision final.
Speaking to Morning Star News, Pastor Acharya voiced his worries about the potential misuse of his case. He believes that authorities might use it to convict Christians for proselytizing or forcible conversion even in the absence of clear evidence. He questioned the arbitrary distinction between ‘forced conversion’ and ‘voluntary conversion,’ fearing that believers might be unfairly targeted.
The pastor’s conviction on November 30, 2021, marked the country’s first case of proselytizing under a criminal code implemented in Nepal in August 2018. Despite facing imprisonment, Pastor Acharya continues to lead Abundant Harvest Church in Pokhara until he receives the summons to prison.
Expressing his concerns for his young sons, aged 5 and 4, Pastor Acharya highlighted the difficulty of a year-long absence. His wife, Junu Acharya, will step in to lead worship services in his absence, but the uncertainty of when he will be arrested looms over the family.
Pastor Acharya’s situation reflects a broader trend of rising hostilities towards Christians in Nepal, as noted by Hanok Tamang, chairman of the National Churches Fellowship of Nepal. While no pastor or Christian leader is currently imprisoned for proselytizing, Tamang expressed concern about the increasing anti-Christian sentiments and hostility in the country.
Nepal’s constitution, established in September 2015, prohibits evangelizing, and the Criminal Code implemented in 2018 places strict restrictions on freedom of religion. Attempted conversions are criminalized, violating the right of religious communities to share their beliefs. The constitution’s definition of “secular” seems to protect Hinduism, and Article 26 forbids converting a person from one religion to another.
While evangelizing has long been illegal in Nepal, there has been an uptick in enforcement since 2018, causing distress within the Christian community. Those convicted of evangelizing or forcible conversion can face imprisonment for up to five years and fines. The vague and broadly defined laws have been criticized for their potential misuse against religious minorities.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy group for religious freedom, argues that Nepal’s anti-conversion laws infringe on fundamental freedoms guaranteed by both the country’s constitution and international covenants. The Christian community in Nepal has faced numerous challenges, including bombings, arson attacks, physical assaults, false accusations, and propaganda.
As concerns for religious freedom continue to mount, Pastor Acharya’s case exemplifies the need for a closer examination of Nepal’s laws to ensure that they align with constitutional rights and international agreements protecting freedom of religion and expression.