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Religious groups in Nepal start equal rights campaign

August 18, 2011

KATHMANDU, Nepal

With less than a month left until the adoption of a new constitution, Nepal’s religious minorities ― Christians, Muslims and Buddhists ― have started a campaign against religious discrimination.

The Inter-Religious Secularism Protection Movement (IRSPM) is asking the communist-led coalition government to allow churches, mosques, monasteries and other non-Hindu institutions to be registered as religious bodies and waive the taxes they have to pay as they are still regarded as personal properties.

“The state patronizes four religious trusts, mostly Hindu, which also get financial assistance,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a Protestant pastor and IRSPM spokesman. “When Nepal became secular in 2006, we hoped we too would be entitled to the same benefits. Our churches face litigation and closure because the government still refuses to recognize them as religious institutions.”

The campaigners are also asking for a Religion Commission and a Religion Act to protect the rights of all sects, as well as proportional representation for the religious minorities in all state organs, like the army, judiciary and bureaucracy.

“Despite being declared secular, Nepal continues to exclude the religious minorities,” added Palsang Vajra Lama, a Buddhist monk and coordinator of the campaign. “For instance, Teej, (a festival, by, for and of women), is still projected as a Hindu festival.”

Amidst growing fears that the new constitution, expected to uphold secularism in the former Hindu kingdom, may miss its scheduled Aug. 31 deadline, the campaigners are demanding that the government respect the deadline and recognize the right to religious freedom as a fundamental right in the document.

Citizens should have the right to follow any religion they want, convert to another religion if they want, and have the full freedom to preach their own religion, the IRSPM press statement said.

A proposed new civil and penal code has caused concern among the religious minorities as it includes a clause that makes conversions a punishable offense. “It is against the spirit of secularism as well as the prevailing interim constitution and should be amended,” said Nazrul Hussain Falahi, a Muslim leader and IRSPM's joint coordinator.

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