Christians may be a tiny minority in Nepal, the tiny Himalayan country nestled between China and India—making up just 1.5 percent of the country’s nearly 30 million population. Despite the conservative number put forth by official statistics and a recent census, church leaders in Nepal believe the number to be much higher: They say there are over 2 million Christians in Nepal, or about 8 percent. Such a minority may play an even larger role in the country’s upcoming election.
Voters are scheduled to elect a new Constituent Assembly on Nov. 19, after the first one elected in 2008 failed to deliver a constitution. This will be the first constitution since the formation of the Democratic Republic of Nepal and the collapse of the previous monarchy in 2008.
“We believe our population is more than the report claims,” Protestant leader CB Gahatraj told Asia News in an article last year. “The problem is that during the census period, many newly converted Christians were afraid to tell their religion, and so were registered as Hindu.”
Nepal’s population is about 80 percent Hindu, and while Christians enjoy a semblance of freedom, converting to someone else’s religion is illegal. Christians hope their rights will soon be fully recognized and protected by a new constitution. They faced persecution earlier this year when they pressed for the right to bury their dead in official cemeteries. Asia News reports that Christians and other religious minorities in Nepal must perform their funeral rites in forests, near rivers, away from population centers.
In 2011, members of the Christian community in Kathmandu, the capital, went on a 39-day hunger strike, and since then the Christian Federation has signed a six-point agreement calling for Christian rights, including commitments to protect church properties and the right to practice their faith. That’s progress, but Christians are skeptical they may be pawns to win votes in the upcoming election.
Tensions remain high in the weeks leading up to the election. In early October a gunman on a motorbike shot in the head a candidate for the leading Unified Marxist-Leninist party, and he was in critical condition after the incident.
More than 100 parties have fielded candidates in the Nepalese election, but observers say the fight will be between the Unified Marxist-Leninist party, the Nepali Congress, and the radical Maoists.