The growth of Nepal's Christian community is turning into a major political issue as the nation struggles to write a new constitution.
Nepal's Constituent Assembly remains deadlocked after political parties failed to agree the nation’s constitution on 22 January.
Nepal has the fastest-growing Christian population in the world. Its Christian population more than doubled from 180,000 in 2001 to 376,000 in 2011.
But the growing number of Christians is a major source of discontent for some Hindu organisations who link them with the West.
Nepal declared itself a secular state in 2007, but calls have grown for the revival of a Hindu state.
Hindu leaders argue that revoking Nepal’s identity as a Hindu state was not a demand of the People’s Movement in 2006, but an agenda imposed by Western donor countries.
Speaking about these tensions, lawyer Kailashman Shasankar who is chairman of Good News FM, Nepal’s first Christian Radio station which broadcasts internationally, reaching listeners in the UK and US, says greater religious literacy is more important than ever.
‘Child welfare, citizenship and ensuring religious freedom [are] some of the issues we actively talk about - and they're all connected,’ says station manager Kumar Sigh Bist.
The station is careful about the words it uses, and the issues it tackles.
On-air political discussions are limited to raising awareness rather than expounding a particular ideology.
Hindu organisations in Nepal and India have repeatedly expressed their concern over the rise of Christianity in the region and the nature of missionary work.
The discourse surrounding secularism in Nepal is often about deciding whether religious freedom includes the right to proselytise. There is a fierce discussion over what constitutes ‘forceful conversion’.
The Hindu tenet of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava (all religions are equal) lies at the heart of the debate. Conversion is viewed by many as an unnecessary action that weakens the Hindu way of life.
At the World Hindu Congress in New Delhi last November, a paper listed 'Missionaries' as one of the ‘Malicious 5: the biggest enemies of Hindu society’. Marxism, Macaulayism, Materialism and Muslim extremism were also cited. The paper criticised missionaries for targeting Hindus and said Christians - having fallen out of favour in the West - were now seeking a ‘safe haven’ in the East.
In December 2014 Andrew James Sparkes, the UK Ambassador to Nepal, was criticised for asking Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) to ‘ensure the right to change religion is protected.’ Leaders of political parties across the political spectrum came together to admonish the ambassador’s statement. The result was widespread protests.
The embassy issued a press release clarifying its stance: ‘Contrary to some claims, the Embassy does not hold any position on secularism – that is a matter for Nepal’s people and their elected representatives to decide.’
The debate over the right to conversion is a touchy one in Nepal. It taps into the larger issue of foreign powers, especially those in the West, who are viewed as interfering in Nepal’s internal debate about religion.
The West has also been accused of funding the rapidly growing Christian community in Nepal.
‘While some members of the community are funded by the West, it is unfair to group us all together’, says Bist.
He adds that because people mistakenly associate Christianity with the West, they assume that all Christian organisations have Western funders who back their work.
‘Good News FM is not funded by Westerners, it is a community based organisation that aims to build patriotic Nepali citizens who can give back to this community,’ says Shasankar.
Before the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990, an autocratic monarch ruled Nepal and Christians were imprisoned for preaching.
But Shasankar says ‘many legal battles’ have been won over the past two decades.
‘The talk about persecution of Christians in Nepal is exaggerated and misleading,’ he adds.
For many in Nepal’s Christian community, the biggest challenge is not blatant political or legal prejudice, but social misunderstandings and suspicion.
‘For true religious freedom in this country, we need to take the Hindu majority into our confidence,' Shasankar says.
'We need to be educated about each other’s point of view.'