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T

he Church is rapidly growing in the former Hindu kingdom of Nepal. In the early 1950s there were virtually no Christians in the Himalayan country, but today it is estimated there could be as many as 1.5 million believers, or about 5% of the population, 85% of which is Hindu.

Although an officially secular nation since 2008, a new law that came into force in 2018 made it a criminal offence to attempt to convert a follower of a religion “being practiced since ancient times”. This refers to a Sanatana religion, interpreted as one passed down through at least three generations. Hinduism and Buddhism were included, but most Nepali Christians, who are either first- or second-generation believers, were excluded. If convicted, Christians could face a prison sentence of up to five years and a 50,000 rupees (£330; $435; €390) fine. In effect, Christians can no longer evangelise or publically state what they believe without risk.

One of the Barnabas-sponsored Bible study classes in Nepal that led to the training of 213 tutors and helped to train 6,094 students in the year up to July 2019

The new law also bans “hurting religious sentiment”, a wording so vague that it makes almost any public Christian activity potentially “illegal”, effectively legally gagging Christians.

The number of arrests of Christians is rising. In November 2018, four Christians were secretly followed and filmed near Kathmandu before being arrested for breaking anti-conversion laws. It was alleged they had been “proselytising” door-to-door, “targeting Dalits” (considered “untouchable” by high-caste Hindus).

In April 2019, four Christians involved in running training courses for pastors at a church in Dang district, mid-western Nepal, were arrested for trying to “lure conversions”. Police claimed that cash and a nebuliser, a device that aids breathing, found in their hotel room proved they were using “enticements”. After a court hearing in Nepal, the four accused – two Nepali men, an Indian national and a US woman ­– were released, in a victory celebrated by local Christians.