Nepal has quietly enshrined a long-time ban on proselytizing in its new constitution. For an indigenous ministry in Nepal that has long found ways to quietly proclaim Christ as Lord, that means business as usual.
As did the interim constitution of the prior seven years, the new constitution signed by Nepal's president on Sept. 20 outlaws "any act to convert another person from one religion to another or any act or behavior to undermine or jeopardize the religion of another," with violations punishable by prison and/or fines.
The ban fails to allow choosing one's faith to be seen as a matter of individual rights as required by international treaties that Nepal has signed and ratified, advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted in a press statement. "Nepal's Treaty Act of 1991 requires the nation's laws to conform to the principles of the international treaties it has signed and ratified," it stated.
While the ban on proselytizing appears to contradict Nepal's assertion of the right to profess and practice one's faith, Christians were relieved that framers ultimately did away with a reported concession to Hindu groups to ban all religious conversions and rejected their demand to restore the Hindu monarchy.
The government instead approved a constitution defining the state as secular and thus neutral toward all religions, over rancorous objections and violence that included attacks on three church buildings. Nepal thus completed the transition it began in 2008 from the world's only Hindu monarchy to a secular, multiparty, constitutional republic. In the process, however, the Hindu groups showed their extremist bent, and a leader of the ministry based in Nepal said possible backlash remains to be seen.
"There could be some reaction," he said, "though not so much in the majority-Nepalese-speaking areas. But in other areas where there's not been much gospel work, there could be some reaction. We'll just see how things go."
Ethnic demands, along with violence that killed more than 40 people, overshadowed the religious concerns in the constitutional framing process, he said, and in any event Christianity has flourished in spite of legal restrictions in recent years. Originating during a harsher period in the 1980s and '90s, the ministry learned from the outset how to proclaim Christ in discreet ways. Bible correspondence courses were primary.
"It started with my mom copying down 100 names and addresses from the back of a magazine of youths looking for pen-pals - basically, they were looking for love," said the ministry director, whose name is withheld for security reasons. "My mom started writing letters to them, and she would say, 'If any of your friends would like to read my letters or would like to read more about Jesus, then please send me their addresses.'"
People sent addresses of their friends and relatives, and the current director's parents officially began the ministry in 1992. When students began completing the courses two years later, however, those who had earned certificates sent them back to the ministry leaders.
"Some were torn to pieces," the director said. "They didn't accept the certificates. Basically, the problem was they wanted more of the gospel. That was their way of protesting."
Some of the students showed up at the ministry office desiring more knowledge, and others waited two days at its Post Office box, eager to accost the leaders and request more instruction.
"It was new; so many had never even heard the name of Christ before," he said. "They wanted to know who these people were that were sending all these gospel materials. Except for one person, all of them were college graduates. Some were in the police and military, some were judges and professors. That's when the ministry of discipleship training started. We realized it's about time we start a face-to-face."
For the first on-site training session, the ministry sent out 50 invitations; 265 people showed up.
"We thought 10 might show up," the director said. "It was a seven-day class, and at end of the training, more than 100 took baptism."
Since then, more than 500,000 students from Nepal's 75 districts have enrolled in the Bible correspondence courses, with 50,000 completing them. The Bible correspondence courses are tailored to reach Hindus (75 percent of the population), Buddhists (16 percent), animists and communists. After taking the Bible courses, more than 10,000 students have taken part in the ministry's discipleship training process.
With a philosophy of ministry geared toward quality rather than quantity, the ministry then provides a 75-day leadership training for potential gospel workers, as well as pastoral training. Taking place at different church halls every three months, the pastoral instruction involves nine, week-long sessions over two years. It is designed for those already in leadership but without adequate training.
The ministry is training two groups of 25 pastors each, at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 per year for each group, he said.
"When there was persecution, professing the name of Christ was very costly, but since the government became secular there's freedom, and because of that there's a lot of false teaching coming in, so it's imperative that they know what true teaching is," the director said. "With Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, prosperity gospel and others coming in, that problem is increasing, and the people that they are shepherding need to get fed the truth of the Scripture."
As unreached peoples are a high priority, the ministry's strategy is to reach out first to those who know both Nepalese and a tribal language, he said. These new, bilingual Christians would then reach their own people in their own local language.
"Ideally we would like to be training 100 people - four groups," he said. "But we need teachers able to do that, so we're working to get them, and of course we need finances to get that going. The teachers are paid, and we use local pastors. We do have pastors with just biblical degrees, but ideally we're looking for guys who have a master's of divinity and are pastoring local churches."
Five years ago Operation World estimated the Christian population of Nepal at 2.85 percent, or 850,801 people, the vast majority evangelicals; that figure is now estimated at about 1 million. With 309 unreached people groups, Operation World estimated 55 percent of Nepal's people had never heard the gospel.
After a period of persecution in the 1990s and more freedom since a transition to a secular democracy began in 2008, the ministry that has quietly proclaimed Christ as Lord has planted hundreds of churches. At present it is helping to develop 66 churches, 13 less developed fellowships and 14 incipient cell groups.
"The harvest is plentiful, the workers are few," the director said. "We need the people capable of taking the work forward. We can definitely use more funding."